On January 27th, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Terry Adirim announced that the Pentagon would vaccinate some 40 detainees at GITMO (Guantanamo Naval Station). Adirim, who was appointed by Biden on Inauguration day, has already drawn sharp criticism for the decision.

A kind of firestorm erupted over whether these Islamist terrorist detainees should receive a vaccine before the average American. The controversy then spread to several U.S. states which also planned to vaccinate prisoners ahead of most civilians.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, speaking at The Villages, a large community for seniors in central Florida, was also against vaccinating prisoners before ordinary citizens. “Some of these states are vaccinating prisoners instead of seniors,” he said. “They’re vaccinating drug addicts instead of seniors.”

According to CDC data, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has administered over 31,000 doses to prisoners within its system. It should be expected that other governors in other states will soon follow popular sentiment and put prisoners at the end of the line for receiving vaccines.

Now Congress is in on the act.

A resolution submitted by Reps. Ashley Hinson (R-IA) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) opposes, “any plans by the United States Department of Defense to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to prisoners held at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay and detained during operations conducted during the Global War on Terrorism until all Americans have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.”

While it’s easy enough to say, “F*** em, I don’t care if these prisoners die from COVID-19, especially the ones at GIMTO!” but there are several very good reasons that the government should vaccinate prisoners as a priority.

Prisoners tend to live pretty tightly together. A major study shows that the infection rate has been three times higher among the prison population versus the general public, and the mortality rate is double. At least 275,000 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 1,700 have died. Prisoners have a difficult time social-distancing because of the very conditions of prison life, which include not having access to cleaning supplies.

When anyone is incarcerated the government assumes a legal duty to reasonably care for that prisoner in terms of food, housing, and medical attention. Prisons that fail to provide in these areas are often sued at the expense of the taxpayer when a settlement is reached. In the case of GITMO detainees, they are offered the same level of medical care offered to members of the armed forces. This could include sending them to the U.S. for treatment if that level of care cannot be offered at the base in Cuba.

Prison guards and other personnel live in the community. Working in a place with an infection rate three times higher than in the civilian population makes these prison employees vectors for the spread of COVID in their communities.

GITMO
A humvee from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard’s 480th Military Police Company patrols the perimeter of detention facilities. (DVIDS)

An outbreak in a prison like GITMO will spread very quickly and soon overwhelm the limited amount of beds a prison infirmary or hospital has. This means prisoners will be transferred to civilian hospitals outside the prison for treatment. They are a very high-security risk while inside a civilian hospital. They present a serious danger to the staff and must be guarded round the clock. They will also be taking up hospital beds that civilians will need. This is especially true in a place like GITMO where the prisoners exist in a state very much like a “Super-Max” prison. Any time any prisoner at GITMO is out of his cell, he is considered a major threat to the safety of the staff assigned to guard him. If that prisoner is spending two weeks in the naval hospital being treated for COVID that risk is greatly amplified. You don’t have to care about the prisoner, but you might think of the guard and hospital staff that risk their lives treating these very dangerous people.

Misplaced compassion for or the sheer hatred of these prisoners should not determine the vaccination policy. Instead, clearheaded concerns should prevail about the safety of prison and hospital staff and the running of the prison itself. An outbreak won’t just affect the prisoners but also the staff. How do you replace the guards if they are as sick as the prisoners?  The short answer is that you really don’t.

Given the much greater risk of infection among prisoners and the security risks for guards and medical staff associated with treating prisoners in hospitals, it makes sense to ensure that prisoners in the care and custody of the government get vaccinated as a priority.

It isn’t emotionally satisfying to say any of this in the least, but it is good policy. Vaccinating GITMO detainees and other prisoners can prevent many problems from sprouting up down the line.

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