Texas prisons and those “crazy” H1N1 vaccines

I have a new post up at Global Comment

image The escalating death rate, coupled with the shortage of the vaccine, has fuelled a public panic surrounding the H1N1 virus. The limited supply of vaccines has caused the U.S. government to focus on insuring those who are considered high-risk are the first to be vaccinated. The impoverished must depend upon free clinics or look for a venue that offers a sliding-scale payment.

According to MSNBC, the state with the largest population of either under-insured or uninsured is Texas. Texas has a rate 41% higher than the national average of incarcerated adults per 100,000. Considering that Texas has the highest rate of under/uninsured and also has the highest rate of incarceration, class and social positioning clearly plays a huge part in who society feels should receive priority treatment.

The government has a responsibility to ensure that prisoners are receiving adequate medical care. Prisons are a breeding ground for influenza, because of overcrowding and close quarters. Employees of prisons interact in the larger community, thus presenting the opportunity to pass on communicable diseases. Furthermore, the prison population experiences a constant shift in bodies, as new people enter and leave each day. Those prisoners who are paroled or who have finished serving their term also present the threat of transmission. This must be factored into the debate when we consider how overall medical care in prison facilities effects the general population.

Lt Governor David Dewhurst of Texas released the following statement:

No Texan should, or will, be second in line to receive the H1N1 vaccine behind prisoners in our correctional system. I have been assured by The Texas Dept. of State Health Services that prisoners are not a priority group to receive the vaccine, with the exception of some who meet strict, medically at-risk criteria as defined by the Centers for Disease Control.

Using medical risk as a determinate of vaccination means that someone currently on death row could potentially receive the vaccine before someone who is not in jail. This has created a public controversy. Online commentary at Texas newspapers have been filled with negative commentary. One such example can be found at the Beaumont Enterprise where one reader had this to say:

“If you’re pregnant and can’t find a place that gives flu shots go down to the Stiles Unit and tell them you just shot someone. You get to go to the head of the line.”

Another stated:

“This is crazy!! There are children that need the inoculations before these prisoners!! LET THEM SUFFER! I do not feel sorry for these guys pregnant or not. Our government is so screwy. This shouldn’t happen!!”

Similar responses can also be found in Amarillo, Texas. Criminality is conceptualized as bad enough to invalidate someone’s right to receive medical care. When someone is incarcerated, they become a living embodiment of their crime and thus their lives are systematically devalued. When we consider that the justice system has a history of being racist and classist, the demonization of prisoners mirrors an unflattering reflection of how deeply we have internalized our problematic social hierarchy.

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