WEST BOYLSTON - JANUARY 22: Inmate Christian Millett of Worcester gets the first of two COVID-19 coronavirus shots by Alyssa Dobbs, an LPN contractor in the medical department at the Worcester County Jail and House of Corrections in West Boylston, MA on Jan 22, 2021. Officials have started administering COVID-19 vaccines in Massachusetts correctional facilities. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Unequal access, short supplies, vaccine hesitancy, and incomplete data. By now, the list of problems hindering the nationwide COVID-19 vaccine rollout has become all too familiar. But in prisons and jails where close quarters put incarcerated people and prison staff at higher risk even as new virus variants emerge, the urgency of clearing these obstacles is particularly dire. 

While some prisons have begun to respond with vaccine awareness and incentive campaigns, experts are now warning that without community buy-in and more accurate data collection there’s little hope of stopping the virus’s spread among incarcerated people.

As Prism previously reported, there’s wide variation in states’ approaches to vaccinating incarcerated populations, with some states categorizing them as a high-priority group, while other states vaccinate people in prisons and jails individually based on age and health risks alongside those in the general population. States also differ on whether prison staff will be offered vaccines ahead of people incarcerated in the same facilities. 

Limited supply and the remote locations and high security measures of many prisons and jails are additional hurdles to getting people vaccinated. However, even in facilities where vaccines are more widely available, significant proportions of incarcerated people and prison staff are reluctant to get the shots. For instance, 40% of prison staff and 30% of those incarcerated in Kansas correctional facilities have declined to be vaccinated. According to The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, some staff across the country said that they would rather be fired or quit than be immunized. 

According to Dr. John Hart, senior researcher at The Vera Institute for Justice’s Restoring Promise Initiative, while some reluctance among prison staff has been attributed to belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, mistrust among incarcerated people flows instead from historical cases of medical abuse and injustice for communities of color, particularly Black communities, as well as people detained inside prisons and jails. 

“The folks who work inside prisons, the people who are also residents there, they’re human beings who take in information, and sometimes the information—especially in the world we live in today—is very misguided,” said Hart. “It’s not always backed by science, and so there needs to be a lot of more accurate information. We also truly believe that there is legitimate fear and a lot of distress.”

To combat people’s wariness, Hart stressed the need for public education campaigns created by or in collaboration with BIPOC community leaders and elders who are currently or formerly incarcerated. 

“If there are better ways to have incarcerated people at the table who are part of the rollout, why not involve people in some sort of a Vaccine Advisory Committee?” he said. “These are things that can easily start to assuage the fears incarcerated people have, and if [Departments of Corrections] are hesitant about it then we need them to become more courageous.”

Beyond education, some states have successfully turned to incentives to encourage vaccine uptake in prisons and jails, a strategy endorsed by The Vera Institute. In Pennsylvania, for example, incarcerated people are told ahead of time that they’ll receive $25 after getting both doses. So far, about 75% of people incarcerated in the three Pennsylvania facilities where vaccinations are available have opted in, according to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel’s comments to The Detroit Free Press.

But while public education and incentives are integral to encouraging more people who live and work within correctional facilities to get vaccinated, public officials won’t know where such programs are most urgently needed without robust, centralized data collection. Currently, that’s not happening, Hart said. State correctional departments’ data is often difficult to read, and many states don’t consistently update publicly available data on things like COVID-19 cases, tests, and vaccinations in prisons and jails. 

Although federal legislation has been proposed that would require state and local correctional facilities to send the CDC weekly updates on COVID-19 testing and cases for both prison staff and incarcerated people, so far the law has not been passed. In the meantime, nonprofits like The Marshall Project and universities like UCLA and Columbia University have been using FOIA requests and existing state data to fill in the data gaps. But in the absence of uniform and regularly updated information from each state prison system and from the Federal BOP, the picture of the pandemic inside correctional facilities will remain limited. 

“We have all these variants coming up and what we can’t allow is any official agency to provide any lack of transparency or consistency because that actually hurts the community,” Hart explained. “You don’t even have to be incarcerated or work in a carceral system … to care. The amount of bodies and folks who are leaving this system—they come out and impact those [outside] at the end of the day. It’s very bi-directional.”

Over the past year, vaccine public education campaigns and data tracking of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have become fixtures of everyday life for many Americans who hope to return to work, school, and some semblance of normalcy. It’s not impossible to replicate these tools in correctional facilities—it just requires political will. As COVID-19 cases continue their steady rise inside prisons and jails, the need for urgent action is accelerating in tandem. Unless states adopt these proven strategies to combat the virus’s spread, communities both inside and outside prison walls will continue to be at risk. 

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is the criminal justice staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.