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People In Jails, Prisons Will Be Vaccinated In Next Phase, State Confirms After Advocates’ Push

Dozens of groups demanded the state act more quickly to protect prisoners and detainees, who now are in line to be vaccinated in the second round of immunizations. The policy change is "a major victory," an advocate said.

The Cook County Department of Corrections in the Little Village neighborhood on April 11, 2020. The Cook County Jail has ranked as the top hot spot for coronavirus in the United States.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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LITTLE VILLAGE — People incarcerated in Illinois will be among those vaccinated against coronavirus during the next phase, according to a newly released state plan.

People incarcerated in jails and prisons will be prioritized for vaccines along with people who are 65 and older, certain essential workers and people experiencing homelessness or residing in shelters, according to the plan released Dec. 31 by the state health department. They’ll all be given access to vaccines during the next phase, know as Phase 1B.

But it will be several weeks, if not months, before Phase 1B of vaccinations start. The state is currently focused on vaccinating health care workers and people living and working in long-term care facilities, like nursing homes.

People detained in Cook County Jail awaiting trial will be among those vaccinated during Phase 1B, said Erica Duncan on behalf of the Chicago Public Health Department, which will help implement the immunization plan at the jail. 

The prioritization of detainees and prisoners in the vaccine rollout comes after more than 60 community groups and advocacy organizations sent an open letter to the state’s health department demanding jails and prisons get access to the immunizations early.

In early December, the state’s vaccination plan was more vague, only saying Phase 1B would possibly include essential frontline workers and other groups. The state was waiting for more guidance from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group of experts who are making recommendations for how states and major cities should prioritize people for vaccinations due to the limited supply of vaccines.

That committee released updated recommendations in mid-December, saying corrections officers should be among frontline workers prioritized for vaccines during Phase 1B.

But Illinois’ plan appears to take things a step further than the committee’s recommendations by also including people who are incarcerated in Phase 1B — something advocates have argued was necessary since prisons and jails have seen massive outbreaks that endanger the people incarcerated and working there.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also said incarcerated people could be prioritized for vaccines since they’re in such close contact with people working at prisons and jails.

RELATED: As Coronavirus Cases Surge In Illinois Prisons, Families And Advocates Demand More Action From State Leaders

The updated guidelines are “a huge victory,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, one of the groups that led the push.

“They live in congregate settings. They can’t socially distance. They’re constantly being exposed to people outside their group. There’s guards coming in and out of the prison every day. … It’s impossible for prisoners to stay isolated so they should be vaccinated quickly,” Mills said.

At Cook County Jail, 100 detained people are currently positive for coronavirus, records show. Since March, more than 2,000 detainees and correctional officers have tested positive for the disease.

Vaccinating inmates along with guards could have a huge impact on community spread of coronavirus, Mills said.

A study by a University of Chicago researcher found 16 percent of all Chicago coronavirus cases in the spring were linked to Cook County Jail. The researchers suggested people cycling into the jail then back out into their communities may have contributed to community spread. The Sheriff’s Office and the city’s public health department have contested the findings of the study.

“It makes even more sense for jails than prisons … because so many people come in and out of jail. In prisons, they tend to stay longer. But in jails, they come in, get exposed, and 48 hours later they leave,” Mills said.

Westside Justice Center, a Garfield Park-based legal support and education group, joined in on demands to give prisoners and detainees access to the vaccines. Executive Director Tanya Woods said despite the victory, their work isn’t done.

“We’re still waiting to see how this will be rolled out,” Woods said.

Advocates and loved ones of people who are incarcerated must stay vigilant to make sure officials effectively distribute the vaccines among inmates, whose voices are often silenced and who have little control over what happens to them, Woods said.

“While we might get an idea of how it’s supposed to be executed, we won’t really know until we actually see and hear from people who are on the inside,” Woods said.

Woods plans for the Westside Justice Center to work with other groups to host public forums on the vaccines to give advocates, attorneys and loved ones of inmates a chance to share their stories and report experiences “so that we can hold these institutions accountable for doing what they are going to do.”

“If there’s anybody that ends up not getting [the vaccine] …  that’s supposed to get it, I think you’re going to see a huge outcry,” Woods said.

The plan for administering vaccines in jails and prisons is supported by Ramon Williams, president of the Teamsters Local 700 union, which represents correctional officers at Cook County Jail. Williams said the plan is “a step in the right direction” after the union previously clashed with the county over putting jail staffers at risk.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart — who tested positive for coronavirus in November — also supported efforts to include detainees at the jail in the early phases of the vaccine rollout, spokesman Matthew Walberg said.

“Sheriff Dart has publicly advocated for staff and detainees at the jail to receive vaccinations as quickly as possible, because providing vaccinations for staff without obtaining them for detainees limits the effectiveness of the vaccinations at protecting both groups of people,” Walberg said.

The sheriff and the county health department plan to do an education campaign to inform detained people about the vaccines and the benefits of choosing to be immunized, officials said.

But due to the challenges incarcerated people face when trying to access quality medical care, Mills anticipates overcoming skepticism toward the vaccine will be a tremendous hurdle.

“There’s a lot of distrust of medical personnel in both the jails and prisons because of the years of bad care that’s been given,” Mills said.

Prisoners and detainees must be allowed to speak with medical professionals so they have thorough information about the benefits and risks to getting immunized, Mills said. Correctional facilities should also have trusted peer educators on each tier of the jail, since “peer education works much better than top-down education,” Mills said.

“Things are never explained to people who are detained,” Mills said. “You can’t just walk up and down a cellblock and say, ‘Who wants the vaccine?'”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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