Officials at U.S. prisons and jails are running into widespread unwillingness among prisoners to consent to be vaccinated. To combat it, some are turning to offering incentives like free snack bags, extra visiting time and even a little time off sentences.
Incarcerated people are at much greater risk from Covid-19 than the general public: Studies have shown that they are four times as likely to become infected, and twice as likely to die. But many say they are wary both of the vaccines and of the prison medical staff members who administer them.
A recent survey at a jail in Billerica, Mass., found that only 40 percent of the inmates would volunteer for a vaccination, even though there had been more than 130 infections at the jail.
Many prison systems around the nation have yet to receive any vaccine doses or offer them to prisoners. Those that have tend to provide little or no educational material about the vaccines, inmates say.
At the Allenwood federal prison complex in Pennsylvania, inmates said medical workers arrived without any prior notice on Jan. 6, carrying clipboards and pushing carts containing vaccine doses.
“They didn’t give us any information beyond, basically, ‘Hey, this is safe, and you don’t have any worries taking it,’” said Domingo Ramirez, who is incarcerated there.
At the same prison, Andres Azner said that more than half of the inmates in his unit had refused vaccination when it was offered, including him.
“They didn’t give me enough time to think about it,” he said. “They didn’t give me enough information to make a solid, sound, prudent decision. They kind of just tried to force it upon me. And, no, no, I’m not taking it.”
The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.
The Delaware state prison system is trying to overcome the skepticism with incentives to receive the shot, and the North Carolina system is considering doing the same.
Delaware is offering credits that shorten sentences by a few days, as well as a 30-minute video visit with loved ones and either a free commissary snack bag or a “special meal.”
The idea is not unprecedented. In November, Kansas state prisons began offering inmates $5 to get a flu shot. The prisons have not yet received coronavirus vaccines to offer to prisoners, and officials declined to say whether the same policy would apply when they do.
Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said that a “very dark history of experimentation on prisoners” was responsible for fostering mistrust — and that certain incentives, involving expanded visitation privileges, were ethically questionable.
Brant Addison, an inmate at the Wake Correctional Center in North Carolina, described a string of sleepless nights as he weighed whether to receive the vaccine. Mr. Addison, who is African-American, cited the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, and said that two of his relatives who are nurses shared his concerns.
He said he might feel safer receiving the vaccine after more people have taken it, including those outside prison walls.
“I have such a short time left, just a few months,” he said, referring to his sentence. “And I want to be able to walk out of here with a sound mind and body.”