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OPINION: Florida inmates should receive COVID-19 vaccine in next phase

Florida inmates need to have access to the COVID-19 vaccine in order for them to receive a humane standard of living. FOTOLIA/VIVICORVID

Health experts at USF announced Jan. 11 that vaccines will most likely be available to university students by this summer, according to Dean of Morsani College of Medicine Charles Lockwood, but a plan for vaccine distribution within Florida prisons has yet to be introduced. All prisoners are entitled to the same health care that is provided to those who contribute to society, and the vaccine would help decrease the spread of COVID-19.

Florida currently holds 98,504 inmates, 4,169 of whom are above the age of 65. A plan for their vaccination and care is essential, but Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials have yet to propose a way to include these citizens in the state’s current vaccine distribution plan. 

Florida’s inmates must be vaccinated in the next round of distribution to prevent furthering the already increasing spread of COVID-19 and to stop the infringement of human rights. The virus has already spread quickly through Florida’s prisons, risking the health of thousands of prisoners and employees.  

Since March, 17,560 Florida inmates have contracted the virus, 169 of whom have died, according to Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, making the correctional department one of the most affected state agencies in Florida. The first case of COVID-19 within Florida prisons was reported April 5.

Prison employees have also been affected, with 4,603 having contracted COVID-19 and five who died due to complications from the virus, according to Inch.

Professor Katherine Drabiak at the USF College of Public Health said one of the reasons for the quick spread of COVID-19 in prisons is how close their living quarters are since Florida prisons are overcrowded, according to the 2019 Florida Bar Journal. 

“Prisoners, like other populations that are in close proximity and close contact, have a different risk of contracting the virus compared to people who have more ability to distance that are not in close proximity,” said Drabiak. 

Florida has the third-largest population of prisoners in the country, according to a 2020 report by the World Population Review, making its facilities high risk in the spread of COVID-19. 

Keeping inmates in close quarters has led to a surge in prison COVID-19 cases and without a vaccine, the spread is bound to continue. 

There are two COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S. as of Jan. 17, and three more in latter-stage clinical trials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Florida, the vaccine has been available to health care workers and people 65 years and older since Jan. 5. 

In November, the Federal Bureau of Prisons halted inmate visitations, limiting contact with society to 500 telephone minutes per month. However, as of September, facilities were able to make their own decisions about visitation plans for inmates, which could further the spread of the virus from inside the prisons to the outside world. Prisons are also not requiring inmates to wear masks, but court appearances have been changed to video conferences.

Inch submitted a request Jan. 8 to provide senior prisoners with the already distributed COVID-19 vaccine, but health officials have not yet responded. 

Many of those imprisoned are believed to deserve less-than-standard living conditions. Some have committed crimes deemed as unforgivable and they should be punished for said crime, but prisoners must be treated like any other citizen when being cared for in a health care crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, so says the U.S. Constitution. 

The Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” requires that prisoners be provided with a minimum standard of living. Neglecting to provide inmates with vaccines in a global pandemic would be categorized under cruel and unusual punishment, since virus vaccines are a basic health necessity, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner. Denying inmates access to the COVID-19 vaccine would be a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Drabiak explained that despite living outside of ordinary society, inmates must be treated with the same respect as any other citizen.

“We treat prisoners the same as we would treat anybody else. They are entitled to dignity and to respect,” said Drabiak.

Citizens above the age of 65 outside of the prison system have already been given access to the vaccines, so it is only fair to provide the vaccine to prisoners within the same age group. 

Vaccines are essential to the health and well-being of all citizens, and the Bureau of Prisons is aware of their importance. The influenza vaccine is provided to inmates on a national level, yet a plan for the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has not yet been established. 

No matter their charge, inmates are entitled to basic human rights and access to rudimentary health care. Florida inmates should receive vaccines soon to avoid furthering the spread of the virus and to abide by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. Inch’s proposal to provide inmates 65 years and older with the vaccine is a start to mitigate outbreaks of the virus in prisons.