Early this year, a 53-year-old Oregon woman died of complications of influenza. She wasn’t the only Oregonian to die, but she was the only person being held in one of the state’s 14 prisons to die. Tina Ferri hadn’t had an influenza vaccine, according to the Willamette Week newspaper.
That doesn’t make Ferri an outlier. In fact, of the state’s 14,550 or so prisoners, only about 4,550 of them received the flu vaccine. The state Department of Corrections bought enough flu vaccine to inoculate only 4,650 of the state’s inmate population.
Given the conditions in prison, that doesn’t make sense.
The flu is contagious under the best of circumstances. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it can spread as far as 6 feet to someone standing nearby; people also can get it by touching infected people or by touching surfaces that have the virus on them.
Prison inmates generally spend their days surrounded by other inmates in relatively close corners. Their cells are small, and some have bars instead of doors. Airborne diseases have no difficulty spreading.
Meanwhile, prison officials have an 8th Amendment constitutional obligation to provide medical care to prisoners — failure to do so can be considered cruel and unusual punishment. That medical care was lacking during the flu season that just ended.
According to the Willamette Week report, officials at the Coffee Creek prison where Ferri was held made no particular attempt to let most inmates know they could be vaccinated, and for free. They provided information and inoculations to those most at risk for flu and stopped there.
This year’s flu shot was not the most effective ever. Even so, there’s no way to predict who it will protect, arguing for using it widely. At the same time, although the shot won’t prevent everyone from getting flu, it can make the symptoms less severe among those who do get it.
Prison is not supposed to resemble life in the lap of luxury, to be sure. At the same time, Oregon prison officials have both a moral and a legal obligation to keep prisoners healthy while they’re there.