Had he lived, Lawrence Carter should have been one of the first in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. He was 76 years old, diabetic, had one leg and was confined to a wheelchair.
But Carter was an inmate at the Seminole County jail. In the state’s view, he would have deserved the same vaccine priority as a healthy 21-year-old:
When it comes to protecting prisoners from COVID-19, Florida’s attitude has been almost criminal from the start. That’s not changing now that vaccines are rolling out.
The first batch is going to healthcare providers and people 65 and older. You could quibble whether the age requirement should have been 75 and older, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. But overall, the initial prioritizing makes sense.
The following phase is going to “essential workers” like law enforcement, school staff and grocery workers. That also makes sense, but it excludes one of the state’s most vulnerable groups.
About 80,000 people are incarcerated in prisons and jails. They are roughly four times as likely to contract COVID-19 as the general population.
Some prisoners haven’t been convicted of anything and are just awaiting trial. Carter was arrested last November on a drug possession charge.
His case was complicated by a potential parole violation. Legal maneuvering and the suspension of court proceedings during the pandemic kept his case from being adjudicated.
Carter died in August of COVID-19 during an outbreak at the John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Sanford.
“All he wanted to do was come home to me, that’s all he wanted to do,” his fiance, Christine Deleo told the Sentinel. “I had asked ... if there was any way we could get him out of there because of the COVID. I knew he was going to get sick.”
Prisons are coronavirus incubators. The problem is, most people who live there have committed crimes. As he devised his state’s vaccine plan, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis undoubtedly spoke for many.
“There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” he said.
That may sound righteous, but it’s a miscarriage of justice. Criminal sentencing does not include being unnecessarily exposed to a virus that’s infected almost 82 million people worldwide.
Prisoners are literally at the mercy of the state, and the state has a moral obligation to keep them safe.
Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t popped off like Polis, but he’s been typically evasive when it comes to coronavirus and prisons. The state has no known plan for distributing vaccines to inmates or prison staff.
The Florida Department of Corrections has applied with the Florida Department of Health for a vaccination program. The DOC will “receive further direction on distribution from DOH as supplies become available,” a spokesperson said in an email to the Sentinel.
Supplies are becoming available, but there’s been no direction from DOH.
The state’s draft plan, released in October, detailed a three-phase vaccination program. Prisoners were listed as a “critical population” but were not mentioned in any of the phases.
Law enforcement was listed in the first phase of distribution. Many people who work in correctional facilities are law-enforcement officers, but they were not specifically mentioned in the draft.
The confusion is not surprising. Florida is one of 11 states that have not included prisoners in any phase of vaccine distribution, according to the COVID Prison Project.
The laissez-faire approach had consequences long before researchers developed a vaccine. COVID-19 overwhelmed jails to the point prisoners were wearing tube socks as masks.
Cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers were scarce. Mask mandates and other safety protocols were haphazardly enforced.
In mid-December, there were 50 positive cases per 1,000 people in Florida’s general population. In its prison population, there were 184 cases per 1,000 people.
Florida has the third-highest prison population, but it leads the nation with 189 deaths. Only three other states have more than 100 prisoner deaths.
DeSantis’ entire vaccine strategy is based on keeping the death toll as low as possible. That’s why instead of vaccinating teachers and police, he’s prioritized people 65 and older.
“The problem is people that are 73, 74 would be in the back of the line for a young 21-year-old worker who’s considered ‘essential,’” DeSantis said in a press conference last week. ”That doesn’t, I think, make sense.”
What also doesn’t make sense is not including prisoners in the next phase of vaccinations.
They are not essential for society to function. But in an ethical society it’s essential to protect people like Lawrence Carter from dying.
Even if they are prisoners.
An editorial from the Orlando Sentinel.