As the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged U.S. prisons, institutions have largely failed to implement safety measures necessary to protect individuals already facing brutal conditions of incarceration. Now, Fox News is trying to stop a Colorado vaccine distribution plan that would have prioritized people whose housing situation puts them at high risk of contracting COVID-19, including those who are incarcerated. After Fox News’ coverage fearmongered that the plan “prioritizes inmates over grandma,” the Colorado governor walked back the proposal and insisted that incarcerated individuals would not be prioritized.
Over the course of the pandemic, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has estimated that incarcerated people are infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate, and their death rate is also higher. A paper published in the medical journal The Lancet has found similarly dire results and a lack of transparency from such institutions, noting that “more than 40 of the 50 largest clustered outbreaks in the country have occurred in jails and prisons.” And in August, the Equal Justice Initiative noted that prisons have not been transparent about the spread of the virus despite a growing number of deaths, suggesting that the true death toll may be much higher:
More than 252,000 incarcerated people and staff have been infected with coronavirus and at least 1,450 have died. While the number of deaths is increasing rapidly (it increased by about 40% over the past six weeks), it is likely even higher than the reported number because jails and prisons are conducting limited testing on incarcerated people. Many facilities won’t test incarcerated people who die after showing symptoms of Covid-19.
As the country continues to make progress toward developing a coronavirus vaccine, states are starting to form distribution plans. Colorado initially released a plan that prioritizes those living in “congregate housing,” which includes “incarcerated adults” as well as those experiencing homelessness, adults in group homes, and students in college dorms, for the second phase of vaccine distribution, which would also include adults over age 65 and those with preexisting conditions putting them at higher risk. (The first phase of vaccinations would include health care workers, first responders, and the “highest risk individuals” in nursing homes and long-term care facilities; a third phase would vaccinate “adults 18-64 without high-risk conditions” among the general public.)
Over the weekend, the plan was criticized by Colorado District Attorney George Brauchler, who wrote an op-ed for The Denver Post claiming that “prioritizing prisoners over the elderly” is “contrary” to “decency.” On December 1, Fox News highlighted Brauchler’s criticisms on its website; the network ran a segment with a chyron claiming the proposal “prioritizes inmates over grandma” that morning, and by the afternoon a Fox News reporter in Colorado was pressing Gov. Jared Polis on the plan, prompting him to walk the vaccine proposal back and announce “there’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime.” The following day, Fox News anchor Trace Gallagher credited the network for the governor’s walk-back and hosted Brauchler to further disparage the proposal, which he called a “crack smoke crazy” plan that “would give the vaccine to the guy who puts the loaded gun to grandma’s head before it gives it to grandma.”
This absurd fearmongering in coverage from Fox News shows how the network responded to an effort to prioritize the safety of incarcerated people by grossly misleading its audience about the reality of U.S. prisons and pushing harmful tropes that suggest individuals who are incarcerated have all been convicted of violent crimes and are therefore considered disposable -- all while ignoring the inherent injustice of the criminal justice system, which has been exacerbated by the virus.
- On December 1, America’s Newsroom aired a chyron that read: “CO vaccine plan prioritizes inmates over grandma.” Co-anchor Sandra Smith introduced the segment by saying that “convicted murderers will get immunized before grandmothers.” Fox guest Dan Henninger complained that governors are “making decisions on the basis of politics that prisoners should be prioritized ahead of teachers or the elderly.”
- The following morning on Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy quipped that if Colorado adopts the proposed distribution plan, “how many people would get arrested just so that they can go into jail and get a shot?” Co-host Brian Kilmeade joked that people will “go outside and get a jumpsuit” to get the virus. Co-host Ainsley Earhardt concluded by reassuring viewers that the Colorado governor has said, in her words, “Heck no, that’s not happening. You don't get it if you committed a crime until the fourth phase.”
- On the December 2 edition of America’s Newsroom, co-anchor Trace Gallagher teased an upcoming segment by saying Colorado’s plan had “killers and rapists set to get COVID vaccines before granny, who’s never committed a crime but is at high risk of dying from the disease.” Gallagher credited the network for the governor’s reversal, saying that “after the [December 1] story aired, that state’s governor pulled a 180 and said they would revise the plan to give prison inmates priority over senior citizens.”
- Later in the show, Gallagher hosted Brauchler, who called the initial proposal “crack smoke crazy” and insisted that prioritizing dense prison populations runs counter to science. Brauchler also expressed support for vaccinating only prison guards and workers, arguing that inmates don’t need to be vaccinated because they “are already in quarantine” and “aren't going anywhere and won't infect anybody else.”