Fox News prompted Colorado’s governor to walk back a proposal to prioritize coronavirus vaccines for inmates at risk of prison outbreaks

On Fox’s “news-side,” Colorado District Attorney George Brauchler called it a “crack-smoke crazy” plan that “would give the vaccine to the guy who puts the loaded gun to grandma’s head"

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.”
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Citation From the December 1, 2020, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom

SANDRA SMITH (CO-ANCHOR): To the backlash now over Colorado's decision to prioritize prisoners for receiving the COVID vaccine first. The state's phased distribution plan puts inmates ahead of senior citizens because of their tight living quarters, which means convicted murderers will get immunized before grandmothers. Joining us now, Dan Henninger, Wall Street Journal editorial page deputy editor and Fox News contributor. What's the reaction to this, Dan? Good morning. 

DAN HENNINGER (WALL STREET JOURNAL EDITOR): Hi there, Sandra. Well, I think the reaction to what they're doing in Colorado would be that it's quite nuts. You know, it's ironic to me that liberals and the left such as in Colorado have been citing the authority of science to justify these lockdowns, and then when science, real science produces deliverance in the form of a vaccine, they revert back to politics to decide who will get the vaccine. We had Dr. Moncef Slaoui was interviewed by Bret Baier last evening and he made it clear that by December, or the end of December, we might have 40 million doses. And since it’s a double dose, vaccine that means 20 million people may have it available by the end of the year. Obviously choices have to be made and I assume the CDC is going to make those decisions on the basis of essential workers, health care workers, and indeed the most vulnerable. But if the states decide on their own to start making these distribution decisions on the basis of politics, then distribution of this vaccine is going to degrade into an awful free for all across the country. 


HENNINGER: Certainly they should have more methods to keep people from getting infected inside the prisons. But, Sandra, one could as easily make or even more easily, more persuasively make an argument the vaccine should be distributed first to essential workers and then perhaps to school teachers, especially school teachers in the middle school and high schools or even colleges. We know that grade school-age students aren't strong transmitters of the disease, but we do want to get the schools back open, and they won't be opened again until teachers at the high school level and mid school level feel confident that they won't get infected. There will be some difficult choices here, but again, I'm suggesting that if state governors start making decisions on the basis of politics that prisoners should be prioritized ahead of teachers or the elderly, you're going to see the day we've all been looking for, the distribution of this vaccine to degrade into the worst kind of partisan politics. That would be a real tragedy. 

  • 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.”
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Citation From the December 2, 2020, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends

BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): By the way, you can't ask for a vaccine for Christmas, they are going to decide when you are going to get it.

AINSLEY EARHARDT (CO-HOST): Unless you are a health care worker.

KILMEADE: Or a senior citizen.

STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): Or an inmate. Had they gone through in Colorado with that plan, how many people would get arrested just so that they could go into jail and get a shot? 

KILMEADE: So go outside and get a jumpsuit and you will find yourself -- and go to jail -- and you will be cured.

DOOCY: You have a very simple view.

EARHARDT: Brian is talking about in Colorado, they discussed inmates -- the ACLU wants the inmates to get vaccines first because more people are dying in prison, they say comparatively speaking, percentage wise. But the governor there said, “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.”
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Citation From the December 2, 2020, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom

TRACE GALLAGHER (CO-ANCHOR): That's Colorado's governor, Jared Polis, backing away from his state's vaccination plan after backlash over the story we brought you yesterday, that prison inmates in the state would be vaccinated before senior citizens. But now some civil liberties groups are upset, saying prisoners should be at the head of the line. The state's controversial plan first came to light in a Denver Post op-ed written by George Brauchler, he is the district attorney for Colorado's 18th Judicial District and he joins us now. Mr. District Attorney, so good of you to join us, you heard the governor at the top there. He was responding in part to your op-ed which reads in part, quoting here, "The decision to prioritize the vaccination of inmates above super at-risk adults is not only contrary to math and decency, it is also contrary to the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. As the son of a 78-year-old father I ask this: What in the hell is Gov. Polis doing?" He is now walking it back. What do you make of that? 

GEORGE BRAUCHLER (COLORADO DISTRICT ATTORNEY): It's music to my ears. I think the policy from its inception was crack smoke crazy to suggest that people who are in prison, who earned their way to prison, are going to be vaccinated before the most vulnerable, at-risk group that we have, and that's the over-65 group. I mean look, in Colorado, of the 2,500 deaths we've had related to COVID, 90% are people 60 and older. In the prison system we've had seven tragic deaths. Seven compared to 90%. 

GALLAGHER: I just want to say, this was in black and white. I want to put this on the screen. This is the phased vaccination distribution plan and it says right there, you are talking about health care workers, first responders, and phase 2 is prisons, group homes, and college dorms. But now you have people like the ACLU who says, quoting here, "The governor of Colorado repealed the death penalty in Colorado last year -- you were there. We do not sentence our neighbors to death. Be they may have committed a crime. Your callous statements are inconsistent with Colorado values. Do better, please." They're saying look, it’s better to have inmates at the top of the line. 

BRAUCHLER: Absolutely disagree with that. Look, I've spent a career trying to protect the public from the people that are in prison right now. In no way am I saying they shouldn't be vaccinated. If we have to choose, though, I choose the 65 and older community before I choose convicted rapists, murderers, child molesters. That doesn't make any sense. The science doesn't support it. And here's the other thing that's interesting, the Center for Disease Control and wickedly conservative World Health Organization also agree with me, and now the governor. 


BRAUCHLER: I think we ought to vaccinate all of the guards and the prison workers for sure because they're going to leave those prisons and go out into the community and possibly infect family members in the community. But those prisoners, they're already in quarantine. They’re not going anywhere, they’re not going to infect anybody else. And it's not infection we're worried about, what we're worried about is death, and we’ve been told over and over again that the 65 and older community will die if this happens. Just interestingly, the governor had said -- cajoled people before Thanksgiving and said if you have an extended family Thanksgiving, it’s like putting a loaded gun to grandma’s head. Ironically, his health department’s plan would give the vaccine to the guy who puts the loaded gun to grandma’s head before it gives it to grandma.