[1/26/21] – Inmates Across the U.S. Begin Receiving COVID-19 Vaccine

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, with Moderna’s vaccine having received authorization shortly after.  Although the vaccine distribution has been slow, over 22 million people across the U.S. have already been inoculated. Healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities were the first to receive the vaccine across the country. In some states, residents who are essential workers, have underlying medical conditions, and are over the age of 65 have also begun receiving the vaccine. But, what about the inmate population? Where do they stand in the states’ vaccine distribution plans? Will they receive priority because they are considered to be at higher-risk for contracting the virus?

In an article published by The Marshall Project in early December, the writers discussed whether inmates should receive the vaccine early. According to their research, public health experts have argued that it was “common sense” that inmates should be at the top of the vaccine distribution plans. Aside from being a high-risk population due to overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and the high prevalence of underlying medical conditions, correctional institutions are also considered to be “hot spots” for the virus and have been the epicenter of some of the country’s largest outbreaks. But, not everyone has agreed and acted on the public health experts’ recommendations to prioritize the vaccination of inmates. In December, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that only eight states had planned to vaccinate inmates during the first phase of vaccine distribution. A total of 19 states mentioned vaccinating inmates during phase 2, while 10 states did not include inmates in their proposals. Some elected officials, such as Colorado Governor Jared Polis, have also reportedly pushed back and argued that people who did not commit crimes should be prioritized, not inmates.

Correctional institutions across the U.S. have already begun to receive the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines. North Carolina, just last week, received 1,000 Moderna doses, which will be distributed to prison staff and inmates who are 75 or older. Inmates over the age of 70 at the Utah State Prison, on January 25th, also reportedly received the first dose of the vaccine. In California, some correctional facilities have also begun vaccinating inmates, but not at the hardest-hit institutions. There have also been some legal disputes concerning states’ vaccine distribution plans. In Oregon, a group of medically vulnerable prison inmates, who had previously sued Governor Kate Brown for her handling of the pandemic, asked a federal judge last week to grant them immediate access to the vaccine. However, vaccine availability is not the only hurdle preventing the vaccination of inmates. According to Oklahoma Watch, corrections workers and inmates within the Oklahoma Corrections system have expressed their concerns regarding the long-term side effects of the vaccine, with some stating that they will not be getting the vaccine at all. Although, getting the vaccine is voluntary, some correctional institutions are offering their inmate populations incentives, such as free email stamps, telephone credits, and commissary items.

As of January 19, 2021, over 355,000 inmates in state and federal prisons have tested positive and over 2,232 have died, and these numbers will continue to increase as the COVID-19 virus and its variants continue to spread. Despite the efforts of public health experts who have advocated for the prioritization of the vulnerable inmate population, the decision to vaccinate inmates early is ultimately one that is made by government officials.

Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom. 

The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.



  • Writing: Explain the arguments for and against vaccinating the inmate population. Which argument do you think makes the best case? Why?
  • Debate: Do you believe that the vaccination of inmates across the country should be prioritized?
  • Poll: Elected officials should, for both moral and health reasons, protect the highly vulnerable inmate population. (Agree or Disagree).
  • Short Answer: Discuss the different types of incentives that correctional institutions are using to entice inmates to get the vaccine.

Cover Image: © iStockphoto.com/simon2579

Which component of the criminal justice system would you like to see more coverage of in future Lecture Sparks?

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