Vaccines are not enough, Decarcerate NOW

March marked the one-year anniversary of California’s ongoing and devastating reality with the COVID-19 pandemic and the first positive COVID-19 case in the California state prison system. As health professionals, students, and community advocates, we are appalled by the negligence of the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) to protect incarcerated people and urge CDCR to implement the demands of impacted communities, public health officials, and medical experts to urgently decarcerate prison, jail, and detention facilities while ensuring equitable access to the vaccine.

Organizational sign-on:


California prisons are home to the largest COVID-19 outbreaks out of all state prisons, jails, and ICE detention centers nationwide. Over 50% of people in California prisons have had COVID-19, and as of 4/5/21, 218 have died as a result of CDCR’s medical negligence. The California Department of Corrections (CDCR) has failed to implement basic public health measures, including social distancing, provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), staff compliance with face covering and social distancing requirements, and adequate testing protocols to keep incarcerated people safe during this pandemic.

With vaccine distribution well underway inside California state prisons, we must prioritize the health and autonomy of the nearly 100,000 people incarcerated in California. Reports from incarcerated people in prisons across CDCR has highlighted inadequacies in vaccine rollout such as: incorrect doses, different first and second vaccines, and ignoring incarcerated people’s health needs around reactions post-vaccination. CDCR has shown it is incapable of providing adequate healthcare and was found in violation of incarcerated people’s healthcare rights. Additionally, despite the fact that infection rates in carceral facilities are significantly higher than the rest of the country, correctional officers nationwide are declining to get vaccinated at staggering rates, directly putting themselves, incarcerated people, and the larger community at risk.

Research shows that even high-efficacy vaccines will be significantly less effective in high-spread, congregate settings like prisons, due to factors like overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, and mistrust of the carceral healthcare system by those with lived experiences of harm within CDCR. Additionally, vaccines may not protect as well against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. Thus, we caution state policymakers and prison officials from treating the vaccine as a simple solution to what is in fact, a deeply rooted and complex public health crisis.

A COVID-19 vaccine will not stop the threat of the next pandemic or end the other public health crises already plaguing carceral facilities in California or elsewhere. Every year poor conditions and overcrowding spur outbreaks in carceral facilities, such as the flu, tuberculosis, valley fever, and legionella. Despite this well-documented issue, CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) continuously fail to ensure equitable and adequate healthcare. Like many infectious diseases, COVID-19 exacerbated the pre-existing public health harms embedded in the prison system, including unsafe practices such as involuntary transfers that have made incarcerated people more susceptible to severe illness and death during and beyond this pandemic.

For months, authoritative health bodies including the American Public Health Association and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine alongside policy experts and academic scholars have released statements, reports, and journal articles calling for decarceration, but CDCR has failed to implement this lifesaving measure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified, but did not create, the intrinsic threat that incarceration poses to the public health and safety of incarcerated people and surrounding communities. This pandemic has continued to reveal what people directly impacted by incarceration have long recognized — it is impossible to keep people safe and healthy behind bars. Policymakers and prison officials must treat the COVID-19 pandemic as a wake-up call to the deep-rooted violence of structural racism and mass incarceration and immediately grant large-scale releases. Decarceration is an urgent, necessary step towards public health and racial justice.

Moving towards health equity in California requires the release of people in prisons, jails, and detention facilities. Our recommendations below are a critical first step:

  1. Governor Newsom and CDCR must decarcerate all prison, jail, and detention facilities immediately to below 50% capacity, at minimum, by granting emergency releases without exclusions based on conviction or sentence.
  2. CDCR must permanently stop all involuntary transfers of people between facilities, including the transfer of formerly incarcerated people from prisons to ICE detention centers.
  3. All local public health officers must use their powers under the California Public Health and Medical Emergency to “abate any public health hazard” and order facilities in their jurisdiction to urgently decarcerate.
  4. California Department of Public Health’s vaccine distribution plan must prioritize incarcerated people for vaccination while safeguarding people’s autonomy by not using punitive practices to force incarcerated people to take the vaccine against their will.
  5. CDCR must require that any staff who interact with incarcerated people or enter carceral facilities show proof of vaccination.


Abolish Stanford

Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA)

Anti-Racism Coalition, UC San Diego School of Medicine

Asian Prisoner Support Committee

Berkeley Free Clinic

California Coalition for Women Prisoners

Challenging The Establishment AD-48

Chaplain of the Heart

Chinese for Affirmative Action

COVID-19 Task Force on Racism & Equity (UCLA Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Department of Urban Public Health)

DPH (Department of Public Health) Must Divest


Do No Harm Coalition

End Solitary Santa Cruz County [CA, USA]

Felony Murder Elimination Project

Health, Equity, Action, and Leadership (HEAL) at UCSF

Health Justice Commons

HIVE (Hub of Positive Reproductive and Sexual Health), SF General Hospital

Hotels Not Hospitals

Human Impact Partners (HIP)

Immigrant Defense Advocates

Initiate Justice

Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity

LifeLong Medical Care

Mourning Our Losses

Never Forget, Never Again, Never Alone

No Justice Under Capitalism

No More Tears San Quentin

Progressive Doctors

Public Health Justice Collective

Restore Justice

Root & Rebound

San Bernardino Free Them All

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Bay Area

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) San Francisco

Sins Invalid

SJSU Human Rights Institute

Social Justice Coalition, Central Lutheran Church

Students Engaged in Global Health

Transgender, Gender-Variant, & Intersex Justice Project

Transitions Clinic Network

Letter Campaign by
UCSF White Coats  for Black Lives
San Francisco, California