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Late in the evening on March 26, a nurse canvassed the gallery, asking us who wished to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. I confirmed my desire to get the vaccine. I was pleased, as it meant I could soon feel a real measure of safety from the deadly disease, but it also meant that as a class, prisoners have reached the waning days of the pandemic. 

My prognostication is based on prison populations typically being last for everything coronavirus-related. By the time remedial efforts have reached us we are past the peak of infection, illness and death; we were the last Americans to receive masks and widespread testing. With regard to vaccinations, all New York prisoners are probably on par with a lot of places in the nation per capita who are just getting around to making people under 50 years old eligible.

Green Haven is a stickler for mask adherence and is randomly testing 25 prisoners a day for coronavirus infections. If someone tests positive and is asymptomatic, that person is sent to quarantine for 14 days. His neighbors, in the cells on either side of him, are sent to a quarantine unit for those who have been exposed. The policy is sound and practical. The nation is now experiencing spikes in infections, but prisons are the most isolated and static population masses in the country. That either bodes well, or has horrendous consequences. 

Fortunately, for New York prisons it has been the former. Our pandemic behaviors have been constant; there has been no ease or increase in mask wearing and social distancing. Our quasi-fatalistic deportment about so much behind the wall has served us well in coping with the coronavirus. 

New York State prisons’ relatively low fatality rates are sheer osmosis. Although there are still isolated infections here at Green Haven and other facilities, our collective rate of infections is low by any metrics, especially so during the deadly winter surge. The portent of serious illness and death is no longer a feature of our collective consciousness.

The issue of vaccines for prisoners in New York is fraught with prisoner distrust and suspicion. The story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken and used for medical research without her consent decades ago; the syphilis experiments performed on black men in the 20th century; and ironically enough, the disproportionately high rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths among people of color are all parroted talking points for reasons not to get the vaccine. The attitude is an insight into why men of color avoid regular medical consultation as well as the higher incidence of co-morbidities and lethality revealed in communities of color in the era of coronavirus. 

In the hope of encouraging folks to make informed decisions, I recently tried to engage a group of guys in conversation about the the difference between the attenuated viral inoculations of the past versus the current MRNA formulations of coronavirus vaccines, but my mini-Q&A on the science and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines was drowned out by the culturally hardwired positions of past racial abuses of Jim Crow and antebellum America. 

Our racially charged history has rendered vaccinations a diabolical conspiracy of the White man to many persons of color here. Anyone who believes conspiracy theories are the exclusive purview of White, disaffected Americans should think again. Conspiratorial thinking shapes culture and custom to the detriment of its adherents, none more so than poor, uneducated people of color. What makes the conspiracy thinking so potent is that it is a mixture of the truth of America’s racist past — and present — and the as-virulent prejudices and biases of some people of color.

There is something to be said for influencers. We could use a few here. Influencers offer the proposition of new insights and possibly informed paradigm shifts in what we collectively think and believe. If an influencer can get people of color and the poor to move forward on the spectrum of distrust, not only to take the vaccine, but on a number of social issues that are in effect, public health issues in low income and communities of color, we then see the need for an army of myth-busting influencers to help us get out of our own way.

There needs to be an easy-to-read and understand handout explaining what a vaccine is, as well as a comparative explanation about the difference between the coronavirus vaccine and vaccines of the past.

The silver lining of the pandemic for many prisoners are stimulus checks. All prisoners who are U.S. citizens are eligible for the Cares Act and the $3,200 disseminated to many Americans. That eligibility runs out on April 15. I’m sure almost all prisoners have applied, but not all have received them. 

Some have issues with their social security numbers — some don’t know their numbers, and the department is reluctant to provide them. Others have filed via the U.S. Postal Service and have heard nothing. There are a myriad of conspiracy theories for this group of mailers who are the most vocal malcontents. Others have filed electronically and received their funds. 

There is both real jubilation over the windfall, while others who have not shared the good fortune express emotions of the “have nots.” I think the real upside is the sense of inclusion in American life receiving the checks has made many prisoners feel. We have shared in the suffering of both illness and the loss of loved ones due to the virus, and to be recipients of the government’s efforts to restore the country’s economic equilibrium allows the least of us to feel like American citizens — for the first time for many of us.

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.

Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.