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COVID-19 Vaccine by CDCR

This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) leads the nation in vaccinating its prison population, according to a study done by the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

The study revealed 75% of the state’s prisoners are vaccinated. North Dakota — which has a considerably smaller populace and state prison population — is the only state that has vaccinated a greater percentage of its prisoners, 91% according to PPI.

“Only ten states have vaccinated more than 70% of people incarcerated in their prison systems,” PPI reported. “Some of these states — Massachusetts, Oregon, and California — included incarcerated people in the early phases of their vaccination schedules.”

Most state prison systems failed to prioritize vaccinations for inmates, according to the PPI study. Seven months after vaccines were made available, only 55% of the nation’s prisoners had been vaccinated.

“To meaningfully protect people in prison, incarcerated people need to be vaccinated at much higher rates than we’re seeing thus far,” PPI reported.

Seventeen state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons had vaccinated less than half of their incarcerated population, PPI reported. The states with the worst vaccination rates were Alabama, South Carolina and Utah. At the time of the study, Florida and Wyoming had not released any vaccination data.

“Since vaccinations started in the U.S., there have been too many avoidable deaths,” PPI reported. “In Nevada, for example, one-third of COVID deaths in prisons occurred this year. New Hampshire’s first COVID prison death didn’t occur until December 30, 2020, and there have been two more deaths in 2021.”

PPI previously reported that many states gave early vaccination access to correctional staff, “under the misguided assumption that a fully-vaccinated staff would act as a preventive ‘barrier’ between incarcerated people and the communities surrounding prisons.”

According to the study, a significant number of correctional staff in the U.S. have refused to get vaccinated, holding “the median staff vaccination rate across the country (at) just 48% at last count.” 

PPI relied on data from the UCLA School of Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, The Marshall Project/Associated Press, and other state-specific sources, such as state Department of Corrections websites and news stories accessed in mid-May.

Data up to this time reflected the CDCR had given at least one vaccination dose to 68,445 prisoners out of a population of 91,341. The study indicated that vaccination numbers could be higher if prisoners had more confidence in state healthcare systems.

“Many incarcerated people are wary of the prison medical system, and for good reason: prison medical systems have long been notorious for unethical experimentation and inadequate medical care,” PPI reported. “To address these concerns, public health experts have been clear: education is crucial to vaccine acceptance behind bars.”

It was reported that nearly 397,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 2020 and that “the virus will only continue to spread without widespread vaccinations behind bars.” PPI recommended that states invest in fast-tracking vaccine education and administration for prisoners.

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.