Our Statement on Making Prisons and Other Congregate Settings a Priority in Colorado’s Vaccination Distribution

A Statement of the Judicators of the Colorado Council of Churches

December 29, 2020

As leaders within Colorado’s Christian community, we are deeply disturbed by the State’s decision to revise its COVID-19 phased vaccination schedule,[i] effectively keeping some of her most vulnerable citizens in harm’s way. We echo the Psalmist’s prayer: “O God, let the groaning of the prisoner come before you; according to the greatness of your power preserve those who are doomed to die” (Ps 79:11).

The impact of COVID-19 has cast darkness upon the nations, and many of us feel as if we are prisoners of the pandemic. With news of effective vaccines, light fills us with hope—but our true redemption cannot be achieved apart from the demands of justice.

While it seems an equitable path to prioritize all health-compromised individuals wherever they reside, such is not the only consideration. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine does advise putting inmates over 65 in Phase 1b, but recommends that all inmates be included in Stage 2, recognizing that their health typically falls below that of the general population [as does their access to quality healthcare,] and that their living settings make transmission deterrents like sanitation and social distancing impossible, thus increasing potential exposure.[ii] Note that health compromised persons are in Stage 2 of Colorado’s revised schedule, while long-term care facility staff and residents are in Phase 1b specifically because they are at higher risk due to confined living conditions beyond their control. Incarcerated populations in our jails, prisons and detention centers are at the same risk and should be an equal priority.

The State’s first schedule for distribution recognized this. Following the NASEM guidelines, the October draft of the Colorado Interim COVID-19 Vaccination Plan[iii] had identified those in “congregate housing (including individuals living in high-density housing who may have challenges with social distancing)” as a critical population. The American Medical Association makes clear that “these individuals should be prioritized in receiving access to safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines in the initial phases of distribution.”[iv] The official “equity” rationale and supportive commentaries for treating all health-compromised individuals equally totally disregards the higher situational risk of incarcerated persons; the fact that prison staff are in line before the inmates only accentuates the inequity. 

We fully appreciate the emotional reactions to the assumption that “prisoners will get the vaccination before Grandma.” These are trying times, but such sentiments must be tempered by science. Not vaccinating inmates means putting them at risk, which puts those who serve them at risk, which puts their families and communities at risk, which puts all of us at risk, including Grandma. While focusing on individuals who have committed egregious crimes may seem particularly unjust to some, it only sensationalizes the issue and ignores the plight of lesser offenders and those in our jails and detention centers who remain innocent until proven guilty. 

In these holy days leading up to Christmas, many of our churches recall the words of Isaiah, Chapter 42, and the promised coming of God’s Anointed One. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights….he will faithfully bring forth justice.” The passage goes on to say that this “light to the nations” will “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Let the light of hope shine into even the darkest of places.

We are grateful for the work of Governor Polis and his team as they try to serve the common good, and appreciate how difficult the task before them is. May our challenge on behalf of those living in congregate settings beyond their control lead to a just distribution of the vaccine.

Signed,

Bishop Jim Gonia, Rocky Mountain Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Joan Bell-Haynes, Executive Regional Minister, Central Rocky Mountain Region, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Presiding Elder Anthony Hill, Kansas District, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Rev. Michael J. Nicosia, Vicar to the Rocky Mountain Region of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion

Bishop Karen Oliveto, Mountain Sky Conference, United Methodist Church

Rev. Denise Pass, Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Plains and Peaks

Adrian Miller, Executive Director, Colorado Council of Churches


[i] Here is the revised schedule: https://covid19.colorado.gov/vaccine#PhasedApproach. Local news coverage of the issue can be found at Prisoners moved down on Colorado’s vaccine priority list.

[ii] https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2020/10/national-academies-release-framework-for-equitable-allocation-of-a-covid-19-vaccine-for-adoption-by-hhs-state-tribal-local-and-territorial-authorities

[iii] https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/downloads/colorado-jurisdiction-executive-summary.pdf 

[iv] https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-policy-calls-more-covid-19-prevention-congregate-settings 

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