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DENVER (Feb. 2, 2021) — Defy Colorado educates, connects, and provides resources to the incarcerated population. We advocate for an often overlooked population and educate the community about their experience. We believe that people with criminal histories deserve equal opportunities, including the opportunity to be healthy.

Like the rest of the world, we at Defy Colorado are thrilled to see front line health care workers and our most vulnerable citizens begin to be vaccinated. We are especially grateful that Governor Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have included members of Colorado’s prison population in early vaccination phases. According to a January 8th update from the Colorado Department of Corrections, in addition to nearly all prison staff having been vaccinated, on January 7th incarcerated people over 70 began receiving shots. This type of parity between free and incarcerated populations is rare, and we appreciate this just and wholly appropriate approach.

It’s unproductive to argue that one segment of our “high risk” population is more deserving than another. However, as advocates for those with criminal histories we want to remind people of the unique and often overlooked circumstances of our prison population and why it makes them especially vulnerable to COVID 19. As vaccination phases progress, it is important to remember that the prison environment puts every incarcerated individual at a high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Because prisons are congregate living facilities where residents have limited autonomy, following CDC guidelines is very challenging. Additionally, despite the state’s efforts, incarcerated individuals do not have the same access as other populations to clean masks, soap, and other sanitary supplies. Data reflects the effects of these conditions: persons in state and federal prison are 5.5 times more likely to contract the virus than the general U.S. population (Gayle et al., 2020). Furthermore, individuals in prison do not have access to adequate healthcare. Prisons are not designed to care for large numbers of patients, and long term and intensive care is typically outsourced, resulting in the transportation of prisoners to hospitals. Given that, as of mid-December, 1 in 5 prisoners in the US had already contacted COVID-19 (Schwartzapfel et al., 2020) the rapid spread of infections is either contributing to the state’s already burdened health care system or is resulting in 100s of men and women not receiving proper care. Lastly, correctional facilities are often thought of as self-contained bubbles. This is not the case when communicable disease is involved. Prisons make up 19 of the 20 largest disease clusters in the country, and prison staff has become a vehicle for COVID-19 to leave these hot-spots and spread to surrounding populations (Shelby et al., 2020). A recent report by Prison Policy Initiative demonstrated the direct correlation between COVID-19 cases in prisons and the communities surrounding them. In Colorado, the net impact of mass incarceration on COVID-19 cases in the nearby community was 1,078.2 net additional cases (Hooks et al., 2020).

We can be both proud and grateful that the Colorado DOC’s aggressive COVID-19 response has left our prisons in far better shape than many in this country (details can be found on the state’s DOC COVID-19 FAQ page). However, as vulnerable populations inside and outside of prisons begin to receive the vaccine, and as the state gains access to more vaccine, our hope is that Governor Polis will keep the above in mind as the state refines its vaccine distribution policy.

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