Vaccines available in the U.S. have been found to be effective against severe illness for all known variants. (Photo courtesy of Ochsner Health)

As Louisiana residents over the age of 70 jammed pharmacy phone lines this week to sign up to receive one of the 10,500 initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine distributed to local pharmacies, there was one particularly vulnerable segment of the elderly population in the state who were eligible for inoculation but had no way to go about requesting it: people locked up in the state’s prisons and jails. 

But at a press conference Wednesday, Governor John Bel Edwards said that those over 70 incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails would start receiving vaccinations next week. 

“As you know, those who are 70 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine now,” Edwards said Wednesday, “and that includes those who are 70 and older in our prisons.” 

Edwards said that he thought there were 489 people incarcerated in the state who were eligible for the vaccine — mostly those who were over 70, along with a handful who are in end-stage renal disease — and that the vast majority were housed in state prisons. Thirty-nine are housed in local facilities. 

It was not immediately clear if those numbers accounted only for state prisoners — who are sometimes housed in local facilities — or also included detainees being held pretrial in local jails, who have not yet been convicted of a crime. 

Edwards also said that the Department of Corrections had already vaccinated 297 frontline medical staff who work at state-run prisons. 

“So this protects the staff who are critical to providing care to inmates, and who will actually be helping to administer these vaccines as well,” Edwards said. 

Correctional officers, as a group, are next up to to receive vaccinations. But it does not appear that prisoners, as a whole, will receive priority.

“As we open up priority groups for our general population we will vaccinate those same priority groups who are actually in our prisons,” Edwards said at the press conference. 

Whether or not prisoners should be prioritized in getting the vaccine above other groups has been a controversial topic across the country, as prisoners have been among the most at risk for contracting the coronavirus due to the inability to social distance inside correctional facilities.

In December, the Marshall Project reported that a staggering 1 in 5 prisoners in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus — over 4 times the rate of the general population. More than 1,700 have died. 

In Louisiana, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, over 2,600 prisoners have tested positive for the virus, and 31 have died. 

The American Medical Association has called for prisoners to be prioritized for vaccination, and some states have taken that advice. In Massachusetts, inmates were among the first in the state to receive the vaccine, and several other states have placed prisoners in priority groups. 

But after Colorado released a plan put together by health experts in the state that put prisoners in a high priority group, but after a public backlash, the Governor ultimately came out against the proposal. The following plan did not prioritize prisoners for the vaccine. 

At the New Orleans jail, which has seen several outbreaks of coronavirus throughout the pandemic, there are no detainees over the age of 70, according to Phil Stelly, a spokesperson for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Stelly said they were working on a plan to vaccinate the nursing staff soon. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has reportedly begun giving vaccines to “high risk inmates in a few of the BOP facilities in different regions of the country.” But they did not respond to questions about whether or not any vaccinations had been given to federal inmates in Louisiana — including at FCC Oakdale, which had an early major outbreak of the virus beginning in late March, leading to the death of eight prisoners.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...