Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

As vaccines are being administered to every person in the country, I want to reflect on my personal experience with getting vaccinated. In United States Penitentiary (USP) Tucson’s case, it’s the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which is administered in two shots. Allow me to chronicle the timeframe for my shots.

Back on October 21, 2020, an outbreak of COVID-19 came upon the inmates at USP Tucson. Previously, several staff members tested positive for the virus, and to “prevent the spread” the compound went on lockdown. This situation, in October, was because an inmate tested positive. From there, it mushroomed.

For months, USP Tucson shuffled inmates with the virus to dorms and moved inmates without the virus into the cells from which the infected inmates were removed — without cleaning the cells first. I was one of the few on the compound who never tested positive. Those who did were told to pack up and were moved to another dorm. Meanwhile, they consolidated as yet uninfected inmates by bringing them into the same cells of inmates who just tested positive. Perhaps this is the reason infections skyrocketed.

On December 28, 2020, I was moved from my dorm to A1, as part of consolidating remaining inmates who had yet to test positive. Out of about 1,300 inmates, less than 200 remained negative. I was moved into a cell from which inmates who had tested positive had just left. It was not cleaned or sanitized. Staff refused to clean any cells and just moved inmates from one cell to another.

From October to February, we were screened almost every day, via oxygen readings and temperatures. Once a week, we had to take the uncomfortable nose swab test to determine if we had contracted the virus or not. I took over 10 tests and passed every one. Not everyone was so lucky.

While this was going on, the talk of the Moderna vaccine was surfacing. From what we were told, staff would get it first, then inmates at highest risk of health, and finally those who never tested positive. Many officers refused to get the vaccine. It was their choice to decline, but there was no backlash or negative consequences as a result.

In February, they started administering the vaccines. USP Tucson was starting vaccinations with other dorms that had tested positive. We were beating the odds, but still needed the vaccine. We did not get it.

We were secluded from the rest of the population, denied calls to our families, allowed no commissary visits, and restricted to our cells all day, every day, for four months, while those who did test positive were allowed movement, phone calls, and trips to commissary. It was like being buried alive.

On February 20, they released us and sent us back to the general inmate population. I went back to B2, my original dorm, where the other 100-plus inmates had already tested positive. No one had gotten the vaccination.

From February to March 18, no inmate received a shot. Then, on March 18, the prison suddenly told us that the vaccinations were coming, just minutes before we had a rec move — the controlled time when officers move inmates for recreation.

I wanted to get the shot, but I had important plans that needed to get done. I was angry that the prison refused to tell us ahead of time of the vaccinations, so we could plan. It’s not like it arrived under cover of night by the Secret Service. They knew it was coming and could have told us at least a day before.

I left to go get my work done and missed the first shot. As it turns out, many others in the dorm didn’t get it either. It seems there was some generated list of who would get it and who wouldn’t. Guys with high health risks, who were supposed to be the first ones according to the information we were given, didn’t get it.

Four weeks later, the prison administered the second shot for those who got the first. Because I didn’t get the first shot, I didn’t get the second. It wouldn’t be until April 22, 2021 that I would be able to get my first Moderna shot. There were several inmates who still refused to get the shot, for whatever reason.

But now, the prison seems to be more aggressive in “making” inmates get the Moderna vaccine, even though it is supposed to be their choice. Over the last few days, they have made announcements saying “this is your last chance” and going out of their way to ask those who didn’t take the shot if they wanted it.

Inmates who didn’t get the shot started to get worried. Would the prison segregate them if they refused? The growing concern started to worry people because they didn’t want to be moved to another dorm or segregated. I know how difficult it is to be segregated and treated worse than anyone else in the prison. It really amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for those who never tested positive.

On April 23, the staff came into B2, asking who had not taken the shot and if they wanted one. A few of us were talking about what would happen to people who didn’t get the vaccine and I decided to ask the officer administering the shots. As I was approaching him, an inmate walked past, saying, “Man, I better go ahead and take it. These folks might mess around and move me if I don’t.”

I then asked, “A lot of guys are worried that if they don’t take the shot, they will be moved. Is this true?”

The officer administering the shots said to me, “At this time, we are not treating the unvaccinated any differently from those who were vaccinated.”

Key words: “at this time.”

No such punishment was levied on officers who refused the vaccination. I heard several officers in the dorm say, “I’m not taking that shot.” For them, there is no punishment. They will be allowed to leave the prison, go to town, come back to work, and become one of the greatest risks of passing the COVID-19 virus to inmates.

At this point, at least 80% of the inmates are vaccinated. As for staff, I don’t know how many have received the shot. In a few weeks, I’ll get my second shot, as will a few others. What will happen to those inmates who refused to get vaccinated? I don’t know, but the words of that officer are troubling. “At this time” suggests to me that the prison has a plan to isolate those who refuse, but are not telling them. I guess we’ll see how this plays out.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Frederick Mason

Frederick Mason is a writer incarcerated at USP Tucson in Arizona. He has penned over 200 essays about prison-related topics including the COVID-19 pandemic situation.