Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

A snapshot of Kevin Sawyer’s survey results.

This article was published in partnership with The News Station, an online news publication that aims to foster dialogue centered on the diversity of the ever-evolving American culture.

More than 20% of prisoners surveyed at San Quentin State Prison in February said they would not take a COVID-19 vaccination or were undecided, suggesting that the prison, which has vaccinated 77% of the population, may be close to reaching its peak vaccination rate. 

The unofficial survey was distributed to 100 men of various races on two tiers inside West Block, which is one of five housing units at San Quentin. Out of that, 18 inmates said they would not take the vaccine, and four were undecided. The remaining 78 respondents had reported they intended to or had already received at least one vaccination.

“I don’t trust the system or the science,” said Kevin Sample, a 55-year-old African American who has been incarcerated for 24 years. “I need to trust both of them.” He said he had no immediate plan to get vaccinated. 

The survey only reached a small percentage of the population of 2,443 residents at the prison, but the results jibed with the chief medical executive’s announcement to the Inmate Advisory Council in late April that 77% of the population had been vaccinated. San Quentin prison officials last week returned almost all programming to normal, allowing people to mingle in the recreation yard for the first time in almost 14 months. 

The findings about vaccine hesitation were also in line with nationwide data from an NPR/Marist poll at the end of March that showed that 25% of Americans were choosing not to get vaccinated. 

However, the percentage was considerably lower than the 45% vaccine hesitancy rate that the Centers for Disease Control reported from a survey of over 5,000 people in three prisons and 14 jails in four states in late 2020. 

One possible reason for the comparatively low rate of reluctance is that San Quentin was the site of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country last summer, infecting almost everyone and killing 28 prisoners and one correctional sergeant. 

“A rationally-minded individual would deduce his health and safety interest to take the vaccine,” said Harry Goodall Jr., a 46-year-old African-American, who chose to get vaccinated. Like others, he shares a cell, which is too small to make social distancing possible. 

James Benson, a 65-year-old African American who is a Men’s Advisory Council representative for Black inmates, said he took the vaccine because he was concerned for his own welfare as well as that of others around him, but he also respected the right of others to refuse medical treatment. 

“I can’t relieve anyone from a conspiracy theory they’ve adopted not to take it,” he said.

Many of those who expressed reluctance were African Americans who said they didn’t trust the prison system. Out of the 39 African Americans who participated in the survey, 27 said they would or had already taken the vaccine, nine said they wouldn’t take it, and three were undecided. 

Suspicions about medical neglect, abuse, and government complicity with experimental treatment has run high for decades in African American communities. One of the best-known examples to fuel mistrust was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” conducted on 600 Black men from 1932 to 1972. Of those, 399 men were infected with the disease, but not treated.

At San Quentin, senile prisoners had been used in testicular transplant experiments between 1918 and 1922, and at the California Medical Facility (CMF) prison in Vacaville, Calif., a drug company called Lederle funded a pain tolerance test in 1962, according to the publication, The Abolitionist. CMF and the California Institute for Women also have a history of using unapproved drugs, incorrect doses of other medications, psychotropic drugs for punishment or control, it reported in the same article. 

Some inmates said they couldn’t trust a prison after letting such a massive outbreak happen. 

“It’s hard to trust that they have our best interests at heart,” said Miguel Sifuentes, a 41-year-old Mexican who has been incarcerated for 22 years and is undecided. “They still have 700 people in West Block stacked on top of each other, but they want me to take the vaccine.” 

Sifuentes said he was concerned about the variants and reinfection, and he was skeptical of artificial RNA, but he also wanted programs to resume and to be able to see his family. 

Like many inmates, Sifuentes took issue with the fact that no prison officials have been held accountable for what’s been called the worst epidemic in San Quentin’s history.

“Several of our friends have died, and all of us have lived under terrible circumstances [San Quentin] created over 11 months,” he said. 

Overall 23 Latinx inmates participated in the survey. Out of that, 20 reported they would get vaccinated. Three said they wouldn’t, commenting that “it’s still under experiment” and “unsure — side effects.” 

Of the 24 Whites surveyed, all but three reported they would take the vaccine. Four had already been inoculated, and none were undecided. 

Kenny Rogers, a White, 63-year-old who has been incarcerated for 13 years, said he takes the influenza shot every year, but he would not take the COVID-19 vaccine because he believes he still has the antibodies after being infected with the coronavirus. 

“There’s no science that says our antibodies go away,” said Rogers. “Why waste the vaccine on someone who has active antibodies, instead of older people who need it?”

None of the six Asians who completed the survey expressed reluctance about the vaccination, although one was “not sure.” 

Of the eight inmates who identified their race as “Other,” five said they would or have already taken the vaccine. Three said they would not take it. 

(Additional reporting by Molly Wright) 

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.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.