The Marshall Project has reported that by December 2020, more than 100,000 incarcerated individuals across the nation had tested positive for COVID-19. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was in the top five state prison systems with the most deaths — 58 lives lost at the time. As of March 16, California alone had over 49,000 confirmed cases in its prison system, with 216 deaths, according to CDCR’s website.
Earlier in the year, prisons around the state including the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif. and the infamous San Quentin State Prison had experienced severe COVID-19 outbreaks.
When news of the various outbreaks at California prisons reached residents at the Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP), located in the state’s Central Valley, it became the topic of conversation among both staff and the incarcerated population.
The Mule Creek Post reported that Pleasant Valley only had two confirmed cases by Sept. 15. Under CDCR’s mandate, officials there had implemented various safety measures such as mandatory face masks (which were provided free of charge months earlier), social distancing, and the suspension of in-person visitations, classes and groups.
Some Pleasant Valley residents, however, were still worried because two of those COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons were only a city or county away. One of the major concerns was that staff, who lived in the surrounding communities, would introduce the virus into the prison.
“Being scared isn’t going to stop the virus. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen,” said Andres Sanchez, a resident at Pleasant Valley State Prison, recalling his initial thoughts about the surrounding outbreaks.
When asked if the news of the outbreak at nearby CDCR caused him to act differently in any way, Sanchz said it made him more conscious of putting on his face mask properly and washing his hands more often.
By Oct. 23, the Mule Creek Post reported 16 confirmed cases at Pleasant Valley; those numbers, however, didn’t remain low for much longer. Less than a month later, the prison suffered its own COVID-19 outbreak, causing Pleasant Valley to go under a major lockdown to help reduce the spread of the virus. The majority of prison residents spent Thanksgiving and Christmas Day in quarantine or isolation, celebrating the holidays with only one other person (their cellmate) or alone.
By Jan. 25, 2021, the majority of Pleasant Valley’s population of over 1,900 people were confirmed to have been infected, with three people dead.
In late December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized their emergency approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Millions of doses were shipped out across the nation as infections and deaths continued to rise both outside and inside of prisons. News of the approval gave hope to millions of people across the nation, including thousands of prisoners.
The announcement became the hop topic of conversation among inmates.
“When do you think we’ll get the vaccines?” was a common question among Pleasant Valley residents. I assume it may have also been a common question across this nation’s prison population. It was already well-known, though, that first responders and medical personnel would have top priority at the start of vaccinations.
So, then, when should the incarcerated — an inherently at-risk congregate group — receive the vaccine?
“There are good reasons to assign prisoners a higher priority,” said Michael D. Cohen, former medical director for the New York state juvenile justice system, in a January article for Prison Legal News. “Almost all of the largest outbreaks have been in prisons. Risk of infection is greater among prisoners than the general population.”
Alongside at least six other states, California has, in fact actually prioritized incarcerated persons by placing them in the state’s Phase 2 vaccine priority groups, before most of California’s general population will receive the vaccine. Even then, some Pleasant Valley residents, myself included, wondered when vaccinations would actually happen.
When I asked some of my peers whether they would get the COVID-19 vaccine when it was offered, I was surprised when some said they wouldn’t, especially since we just had an outbreak.
Even my cellmate said he wouldn’t. When asked why, he said he really didn’t like vaccines to begin with, and that these vaccines were approved too quickly.
“What if later down the road those vaccines end up doing some more damage than good like some of the meds that have been recalled?” he said. “It’s soon, too risky for me.”
I found this was a common sentiment amongst those who didn’t want the vaccine. I tried reasoning with my cellmate by pointing out some of the very limited facts I had of the benefits. I even highlighted the many times pandemic experts urged everyone on national media outlets to get vaccinated. It was to no avail.
“We’ve been testing negative so far,” he countered. “I don’t need it. You shouldn’t get it either.”
On Jan. 21, Pleasant Valley medical personnel went around to the prison’s housing units, offering the prison population the vaccine. Some accepted, others refused. I accepted, but noticed the medical personnel did not have any syringes or vials.
When I asked where the vaccines were, they said they didn’t have them yet,
“We’re just trying to find out how many people want it,” the person said.
Five days later, on Jan. 26, medical personnel again entered my housing unit. This time, one carried two boxes of disposable medical gloves, another had a bright red syringe disposal container, another carried a large, clear Ziploc bag that contained syringes and what looked like vials, and another had some sheets of paper in her hand. I was excited. I’d finally get my first dose, or so I thought.
“Attention in the building,” said the housing unit control booth officer over the building’s P.A. system. “Listen up. COVID vaccines. The following inmates report to the nurses. …”
A list of about 25 names were called, and mine wasn’t one of them. Later I went to the medical window to find out whether a mistake was made when I wasn’t called. It was explained to me that due to the limited amount of available vaccines, the distribution of it would be done in small batches.
“You’re on the list, though. Don’t worry,” a nurse reassured me.
On Feb. 2 and 4, similar scenes played out. Again, my name wasn’t called. Then on Feb. 5, in the morning, a nurse came to my cell door to ask me if I was going to take the vaccine.
Hours later, my cell door opened, and I heard my name called to report to the nurses. I rushed over to them right away, fearing I would be told it was a mistake. I was directed to a nearby medical assistant.
“Are you ready for this?” she asked, as she filled the fresh syringe with clear liquid from a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine vial. With the swiftness of a seasoned pro, she inserted the needle into my upper-left arm and removed it in two seconds.
“You’re done,” she said with a smile. “Sit over there on the benches for at least 15 minutes so we can monitor you to make sure you’re okay.”
There was a little over 30 of us sitting on the benches with our face masks on. A sense of relief permeated the group. People were actually smiling.
“Finally,” I overheard one person say. “I don’t have to worry so much about getting really sick if I catch COVID. Hopefully my body will be able to fight back much better now.”
I felt okay the rest of the day. The next day, though, I woke up with a slight headache and a very sore upper-left arm at the injection site. I noticed a tender bump that was about 3 inches in diameter, but other than that, I felt fine.
My peers and I are glad we got the vaccine. It’s our little contribution to help resolve a bigger problem.
As Dr. Cohen said in his Prison Legal News article: “We must continue to use all available means to reduce the risk of acquiring or spreading the infection. … [V]accines are not a treatment for COVID-19 disease. …Vaccines only help prevent serious infections. Vaccines are powerful tools for prevention, and this is important. … All prevention tools are needed now more than ever because community spread is rampant. …The harm of the pandemic to individual people and to populations is clearly much greater than any theoretical ‘risks’ of the vaccines.”
This is just as true, if not more, in our nation’s incarcerated population.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.