Friday, October 30, 2009

Denying H1N1 vaccines to prisoners would harm public health

Are pregnant women behind bars less worthy of the H1N1 flu shot than susceptible populations in Wisconsin communities? Recent media stories (such as Green Bay's NBC 26 story) and a press release from State Representative Brett Davis (R-Oregon) are suggesting just that.

Statements encouraging state health officials to put the health of not just prisoners, but by extension the prison staff, correctional officers and their families in jeopardy by denying H1N1 vaccine to prisoners including pregnant female inmates garnered a response from the executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin today. Chris Ahmuty said that denying or delaying appropriate preventive actions to control the spread of the flu, including vaccination in the close confines of the prison system, is neither rational nor effective.

“Taycheedah’s (Taycheedah Correctional Institution near Fond du Lac, WI) prisoners and guards are in just the kind of setting that needs aggressive preventive measures to avoid widespread infection," said Ahmuty. "To suggest that prisoners should not receive vaccine because they are less important than the ‘law abiding citizens of our state,’ will only further the spread of H1N1 to everyone.”

The Centers for Disease Control’s Interim Guidance for Correctional and Detention Facilities on Novel Influenza A (H1N1) Virus (May 24 2009) recognized that:
"Correctional institutions pose special risks and considerations due to the nature of their unique environment. Inmates are in mandatory custody and options are limited for isolation and removal of ill persons from the environment. The workforce must be maintained and options are limited for work alternatives (e.g., work from home, reduced or alternate schedules, etc.). In addition, many inmates and workforce may have medical conditions that increase their risk of influenza-related complications.”
"In overcrowded jails and prisons, such as Taycheedah, the risk of H1N1 contagion spreading among prisoners and correctional officers and then to the officers’ families and communities must be addressed vigorously," said Ahmuty.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin in a May 1, 2009 media release urged public health officials “to implement a public health policy which is rational, effective and has the least intrusion possible on civil liberties.”

Ahmuty reminded the public, “Prisoners are serving their debt to society, but being subjected to disease and death is not part of a just sentence in any civilized society."

Read more about the ACLU of Wisconsin's work to address poor health conditions in Wisconsin prisons.