This is a lightly edited version of an article published in the Summer 2021 issue of Nash News at Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina. 

In January — while the COVID-19 outbreak was still cycling through the Nash Correctional Institution (NCI) — vaccines became available for the incarcerated population. Initially offered to men in the high-risk category, the two-shot vaccine manufactured by Moderna was eventually offered to everyone at the prison.

“The fastest way to return to a sense of normalcy is through a high percentage of [incarcerated men and staff] to [receive] the COVID-19 vaccine,” said NCI Warden Drew Stanley in a late-January memo. The goal at NCI was to have 80% of the entire population receive the vaccine, a level that would provide herd immunity. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

By May, the camp had nearly reached that mark, with 50% of nearly 640 incarcerated men receiving both jabs. NCI ranks first in the state for vaccination rates among medium custody level facilities.

Despite evidence the vaccines are safe, some men at Nash were hesitant to take the shot. “There are multiple reasons why I declined,” said James Benoy. “First, I trust in God above government and science. Second, I have underlying health conditions, and it might not be safe to inject the shot.”

Alton Bagley also had medical concerns because he had a triple-bypass heart surgery in December 2019. “I took the flu shot once and it made me sick,” he said, adding that if he were to take the vaccine, he would have to be sure it would not have an adverse reaction with his current heart-related medications. Bagley said he had no plans to take the shot.

Despite the hesitation of some to take the vaccine for religious, medical, or political reasons, evidence shows the benefits of the shots clearly outweigh the risks. 

The rollout at Nash was a collaborative effort between medical, program, and custody staff, spearheaded by nurse supervisor Hardison. Shots have been administered in various locations around the prison, most within the cell houses in assembly line fashion.

In an effort to drive support for the vaccine, incentives have been offered to those who take the jabs. Incarcerated men and women can earn five-day sentence credits toward time served. Those who cannot earn sentence credits were offered $5. A free 10-minute phone call and additional visitation sessions were also offered. So far, some have received the $5, but those waiting on phone calls and extra visitation sessions may not see them until December.

For those who still have not received the vaccine, Stanley says the shots are readily available. Men at Nash who wish to be vaccinated can fill out a sick call form or alert their housing unit managers to receive the free shots.

In addition to the men who live at Nash, there are also 273 employees who enter the gates weekly. An exact number of those who have been vaccinated is unknown because statuses are self-reported. However, at least 148 reported they were fully vaccinated, meaning the vaccination rate for Nash employees is north of 54%.

In the past few months, Nash has reduced the number of separated cohorts from eight to four, and more recreation events and yard time have been scheduled. Full-time field ministry program classes have also resumed. What has not returned are classes and programs conducted by outside teachers and volunteers, though the first of those classes — commercial cleaning — is slated to begin in mid-July.

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.

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Marcus Burnette

Marcus Burnette is a reporter for Nash News at Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina. Past issues of Nash News can be read on JSTOR's Reveal Digital archive of prison newspapers (https://bit.ly/3t47neh)

Caddell Kivett

Caddell Kivett is a staff writer and former assistant editor for The Nash News, a quarterly publication at Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C. Kivett is a founding member of the Committee of Incarcerated Artists and Writers, a group that uses written word and art to imagine a different idea of justice in the United States.