When a correctional officer took a poll of his co-workers on a private Facebook group asking whether they would get the COVID-19 vaccine, only 40 of 475 (8.4 percent) said yes and more than half replied, “Hell no”.1
This informal poll appears to represent the sentiment of Department of Corrections employees across the country. Despite strong encouragement by the Department of Corrections, more than half the Corrections staff refused to take the vaccine in Massachusetts when it was offered. State officials maintain that some of the staff may have gotten the shot elsewhere and were not declining the vaccine altogether.2
In Rhode Island, a higher percentage of prison staff has refused the vaccine than prison inmates. Statewide surveys in California reveal that half of the correctional officers plan to wait to get vaccinated and in Iowa only a little more than half plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine.3 Oregon state officials project that as many as 55 percent of prison staff would be willing to get the vaccine.4
Concern Over COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects Main Reason for Inmate Refusal
The Associated Press and the Marshall Project interviewed correctional officers, union leaders, public health experts and prison doctors in an attempt to gain insight on the high vaccine refusal rates, despite COVID-19 infection rates being more than three times as high in prisons than in the general public. Among concerns, correctional officers cited vaccine side effects and distrust of the prison administration, especially with regard to COVID-19.5
Public health experts have raised concerns over the potential spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus should large numbers of prison workers continue to refuse to take the novel vaccine, although the vaccine has so far only been proven to prevent COVID-19 disease symptoms and severe complications.6 Over the last year, more than 388,000 prisoners and 105,000 prison staff contracted COVID-19 with 2,474 prisoners and 193 staff members dying of the virus across the country.7
Promoting COVID-19 Vaccination As an “Act of Solidarity”
The COVID-19 vaccine, which is being distributed under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and is still considered experimental because it has not been formally licensed by the FDA,8 cannot be mandated for prison workers and the Department of Corrections staff has been encouraging vaccine uptake with little success. Less than half of the 240 employees in a federal prison in Miami have received both doses of the vaccine as of Mar. 11, despite the local corrections officer union president and the prison warden sending an email encouraging everyone to be vaccinated and stressing that doing so was, “an act of solidarity.”9
A correctional sergeant in Florida explained…
I wouldn’t care if I worked in a dorm with every inmate having COVID, I still wouldn’t get [vaccinated]. If I’m wearing a mask, gloves, washing my hands and being careful—I’d still feel better working like that than putting the vaccine in my body.10
So many prisoner officers have refused the vaccine that researchers at the University of California- San Francisco created a flyer for inmates who have also been declining the vaccine, saying that inmates should not be swayed by officers who have refused the vaccine and instead should make their own decision, “regardless of what other people are doing.”11
Some Prison Inmates are Able to Get the Vaccine
In some cases, the left-over vaccines that have not been used by the prison staff are being offered to prison inmates.12 Whether a prisoner is offered the vaccine depends on which state they are incarcerated in, even though prisons have seen COVID cases at four times the rate13 with a death toll twice as high as the general population.14 According to The Marshall Project and the Associated Press, one in five incarcerated persons contracted COVID-19 as of Dec. 1, 2020.15
Some states have prioritized getting inmates vaccinated, while others are waiting until the vulnerable groups in the general population have access to the vaccine before offering it to inmates. Ten states have included inmates as part of their phase 1 COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, including Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.16
Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker said:
These facilities are prioritized because they serve vulnerable populations in densely populated settings, which means they’re at significant risk for contracting COVID-19.17
In Kansas, approximately half of the 8,600 state prison inmates have received the COVID-19 vaccine and, according to state officials, all inmates who want it will have the first dose by mid-April. In Florida, however, inmates will not be offered the vaccine before senior citizens in the general population have had the opportunity to get the shot, while Colorado will only vaccinate inmates who would be eligible in the general population. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Medical Association (AMA) support the early vaccination of prison inmates.18
As of Mar. 1, approximately 63,000 incarcerated people have received the vaccine across the country.19 A survey of 136 inmates in federal and state prisons conducted by The Marshall project and the Associated Press showed that the majority planned to get the vaccine when it was offered.
Inmates Distrust Prison Medical Staff
However, many of the respondents revealed that they do not trust prison medical staff. One inmate said that he feared having a negative reaction to the vaccine and being left in his cell without receiving proper medical attention. Other respondents said that they did not think that the medical staff would offer potentially life-saving medication to inmates and had doubts the prison staff would act in the inmates’ best interest and provide accurate information about the vaccines to them. Almost one-third of inmates thought that a COVID-19 vaccination program would be another attempt by the medical community to experiment on prisoners.20
Some prison officials believe the best way to overcome vaccine hesitancy is to highlight how current prison life would improve with mass vaccination of all inmates. Many prisons have canceled classes and substance-abuse programs and have not allowed inmates to use workout equipment to physically exercise during the lockdown. Because inmates were left alone in their cell for long periods of time during COVID-19 lockdowns, many are eager to get back to normal life.21
Inmates Offered Incentives to Get COVID-19 Vaccinations
Other states are using incentives to encourage vaccine uptake among inmates. In Virginia, prisoners are offered free stamps, telephone credits and care packages. In North Carolina, some inmates are allowed to leave prison five days earlier if they receive the vaccine. A few Pennsylvania prisons are offering cash as an incentive to get the vaccine.22
In a California prison, medically vulnerable inmates who have refused the vaccine are visited in their cell by prison staff who will answer any questions about the vaccine as they create a vaccine refusal list.
Not all inmates are wary of the vaccine. In response to a lawsuit brought by a group of inmates in Oregon Department of Corrections institutions alleging constitutional and state law violations, a judge in Oregon ordered that prison inmates be offered the COVID-19 vaccine immediately subject to availability. US Magistrate Stacie Beckerman wrote,
… the Eighth Amendment imposes an obligation on Defendants to protect the people in their custody because they cannot protect themselves… Our constitutional rights are not suspended during a crisis. On the contrary, during difficult times we must remain the most vigilant to protect the constitutional rights of the powerless. Even when faced with limited resources, the state must fulfill its duty of protecting those in its custody.23
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Click here to view References:
1 Lewis N, Sisak M. US prison guards refusing vaccine despite COVID-19 outbreaks. ABC News Mar. 15, 2020.
2 Becker D. Lawsuit On COVID Prison Releases Shows Many DOC Workers Refusing Vaccine. WBUR News Feb. 17, 2021.
3 Lewis N, Sisak M. US prison guards refusing vaccine despite COVID-19 outbreaks. ABC News Mar. 15, 2020.
4 Riski T. State Officials Expect 45% of Oregon Prison Staff to Refuse a COVID-19 Vaccine. Willamette Week Feb. 10, 2021.
5 Lewis N, Sisak M. US prison guards refusing vaccine despite COVID-19 outbreaks. ABC News Mar. 15, 2020.
6 Hunter P. COVID-19 vaccines are probably less effective at preventing transmission than symptoms – here’s why. Medical Xpress Mar. 16, 2021.
7 Lewis N, Sisak M. US prison guards refusing vaccine despite COVID-19 outbreaks. ABC News Mar. 15, 2020.
8 FDA. Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines Explained. Mar. 5, 2021.
9 Lewis N, Sisak M. US prison guards refusing vaccine despite COVID-19 outbreaks. ABC News Mar. 15, 2020.
13 Quandt KR. Incarcerated people and corrections staff should be prioritized in COVID-19 vaccination plans. Prison Policy Initiative Dec. 8, 2020.
14 Inglesby T, Gonzales A. Infectious disease expert, former attorney general: Prioritize COVID vaccines for inmates. Yahoo! News Mar. 17, 2021.
15 Lewis N, Sisak M. US prison guards refusing vaccine despite COVID-19 outbreaks. ABC News Mar. 15, 2020.
17 Inglesby T, Gonzales A. Infectious disease expert, former attorney general: Prioritize COVID vaccines for inmates. Yahoo! News Mar. 17, 2021.
18 Klein AH, Norman DM. Covid Outbreaks Devastated Prisons, but State Inmates’ Access to the Vaccine Varies Widely. The New York Times Mar. 17, 2021.
19 Lewis N. How Prisoners Feel About Getting Vaccinated. Slate Mar. 1, 2021.
20 Inglesby T, Gonzales A. Infectious disease expert, former attorney general: Prioritize COVID vaccines for inmates. Yahoo! News Mar. 17, 2021.
23 Paul Many et al. vs. Kate Brown, et al. Case 6:20-cv-00570-SB.