“Will you take the COVID-19 vaccine if offered?” a Florida correctional officer asked his colleagues in a private Facebook group earlier this year. ”
Just 40 of the 475 respondents said yes, suggesting that more than half of the respondents said “hell no.”
More than half of the people hired by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections refused to be immunized. According to a statewide study in California, half of all correctional officers will wait to be vaccinated. According to medical director Dr. Justin Berk, prison personnel in Rhode Island have declined the vaccine at a higher rate than the imprisoned. In Iowa, a little more than half of workers said they would get vaccinated, according to early polling.
Corrections workers are rejecting vaccinations at unprecedented rates as states begin COVID-19 inoculations in prisons around the country, leading some public health experts to be concerned about the possibility of controlling the pandemic both inside and outside the prison walls. Infection rates are more than three times higher in jails than in the general population. In cramped, poorly ventilated spaces ripe for virus transmission, prison workers aided outbreaks by refusing to wear masks, downplaying people’s symptoms, and haphazardly implementing social distancing and hygiene protocols.
The Associated Press and The Marshall Project partnered on this report about the state of the prison system in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. The Marshall Project’s Nicole Lewis, Beth Schwartzapfel, and Tom Meagher contributed reporting.
The Marshall Project and The Associated Press met with correctional officers and union leaders around the country, as well as public health experts and prison physicians, to learn why officers are refusing to be vaccinated despite the fact that they are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Many workers talked on the condition of anonymity because they were afraid of losing their jobs if they said something.
At least 37 prison systems began offering vaccinations to their employees in December and January, especially front-line correctional officers and those working in health care. According to data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press since December, more than 106,000 prison personnel in 29 programs, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Employees who are vaccinated in a group environment, such as a clinic or pharmacy, are not tracked in some states.
Nonetheless, several correctional officers are rejecting the vaccine because they are worried about the vaccine’s short- and long-term side effects. Others have embraced vaccine-related conspiracy theories. Officers have been unable to get immunized due to their distrust of the prison administration and the treatment of the virus. Correctional officers have said that they would rather be shot than vaccinated in some cases.
Correctional officers aren’t the only ones who have developed vaccine resistance. Health care staff, nursing home caregivers, and police officers — who have experienced the pandemic’s worst consequences — have all refused vaccination at alarmingly high rates.
According to public health advocates, prison staff’ reluctance to take the vaccine threatens to derail attempts to contain the pandemic both inside and outside of jails. Since prisons are coronavirus hotspots, as staff members return home after work, they provide a gateway for the virus to spread. Over the past year, the coronavirus has infected more than 388,000 inmates and 105,000 staff members. In states like Michigan, Kansas, and Arizona, this means that one out of every three employees has been contaminated. One in every 20 employees in Maine, the state with the lowest infection rate, tested positive for COVID-19. These infections killed 2,474 inmates and at least 193 staff members around the country.
Brie Williams, a correctional health specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, or UCSF, said, “People who work in prisons are an important part of the equation that will lead to reduced disease and less risk of renewed explosive COVID-19 outbreaks in the future.”
According to Kareen Troitino, the local corrections officer union president, less than half of the 240 workers at FCI Miami, a federal prison in Florida, had been completely vaccinated as of March 11. According to Troitino, many of the staff who declined raised reservations about the vaccine’s effectiveness and side effects.
Troitino and FCI Miami warden Sylvester Jenkins sent an email to employees in January saying that they had decided to get vaccinated “in an act of unity” and urged other employees to do the same. “While we understand and appreciate that this motion is not necessary, we urge all staff to join us with the goal of promoting staff safety,” the Jan. 27 email said.
There were just 25 workers who signed up. According to Troitino, FCI Miami has had two major coronavirus outbreaks: in July, when more than 400 of the facility’s 852 inmates were accused of having the disease, and in December, when about 100 people were affected at the facility’s minimum-security camp.
There are concerns that this might happen again because so many correctional officers and inmates have not been vaccinated. “Everyone is on pins and needles,” Troitino said. Despite having received the vaccine, he is concerned about another outbreak and the effect on the prison’s already overburdened workers.
The pandemic has put a strain on jails that are still understaffed and have poor health care. Low vaccination rates among officers can put prisons at risk of overcrowding. Since so many staff members had called in sick or declined to work at the peak of the epidemic behind bars, many states had to call in the National Guard to operate the facilities temporarily.
Troitino said that officers at FCI Miami are regularly transporting sick and elderly inmates to the hospital. As a result, the jail is run by a skeleton crew of employees. Workers that have not been vaccinated contribute to the issue because they are at risk of becoming ill if diseases arise in the jails.
“A lot of workers are frightened when they hear stuff like, ‘Oh, we had an outbreak in a unit, 150 inmates have COVID,’” Troitino said. “Everyone gets sick and calls in.”
According to Brian Dawe, a former correctional officer and national director of One Voice United, a policy and advocacy organization for officers, widespread confusion among correctional personnel is contributing to vaccine resistance. According to Dawe, the majority of law enforcement officers lean right. He said, “They get a lot of their information from right-wing media outlets.” “Many of them feel that masks are unnecessary. That it’s the flu.” According to national surveys, Republicans without a college diploma are the most resistant to the vaccine.
Many of their colleagues believe the vaccine could give them the virus, according to several correctional officers in Florida who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to talk to the press. Some people have taken to debunked conspiracy theories circulated on social media, claiming the vaccine contains tracking devices developed by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, who has contributed to coronavirus treatment studies, according to the officers. (There are no monitoring devices in the vaccine.) Some say the vaccine was rushed out without enough time to study long-term side effects.
“I wouldn’t get (vaccinated) even though I served in a dorm with every prisoner getting COVID,” said a correctional sergeant with the Florida Department of Corrections for more than a decade. “I’d feel safer operating like that than putting the vaccine in my body if I’m wearing a mask, gloves, washing my face, and being careful.”
The refusal of guards/officers… at my facility to get the vaccine is so common that UCSF researchers have produced a frequently asked questions flyer for the incarcerated, which includes: “I heard the guards/officers… at my facility are refusing to get the vaccine.” Why should I care if they aren’t having it? The researchers urge incarcerated people to read what they can about the vaccine and make their own choices “regardless of what other people are doing.”
Public health advocates have encouraged states to make vaccinations a top priority in prisons and jails, but have warned against prioritizing workers over inmates. The Marshall Project and the Associated Press discovered that at least 15 states started vaccinating workers before the inmates were imprisoned, but figures from certain states aren’t available. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, the director of the COVID Prison Project, which monitors correction officials’ reactions to the pandemic, said, “We know they have anti-vax ideas and attitudes.” “We have repeatedly stated that we do not have a two-tier system.”
Guards’ refusal to be vaccinated, on the other hand, has become a boon to some imprisoned citizens. Since the vaccines have a brief shelf life until thawed, authorities have given the remaining vaccines to inmates rather than letting them go to waste. For sending explosives to state and federal authorities, Julia Ann Poff is incarcerated at FMC Carswell, a federal prison in Texas for women with special medical and mental health needs. After some officers refused, she said she got her first shot in mid-December.
Using the prison’s email system, she wrote, “I consider myself very fortunate to have received it.” “I have lupus and have just been diagnosed with heart disease, so I couldn’t afford to get sick.”