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Prioritizing Incarcerated People for Vaccine Quickly Reduced COVID in IL Prisons

The state has vaccinated 69 percent of the people in prison. However, most guards are not required to get vaccinated.

Kelly Markham, an RN supervisor at Faribault Prison, administers the state's first COVID-19 vaccination to a medically vulnerable incarcerated person, Edward Anderson, on January 4, 2021, in Faribault, Minnesota.

Part of the Series

“One thing about prison, you don’t want to get sick in here,” says James Trent, who is incarcerated in Western Illinois Correctional Center. When the chance came to get the vaccine for COVID-19, most people inside got the shot “because this is very serious,” he told Truthout over the phone.

Illinois is ahead of most states in vaccinating people who are incarcerated, thus far vaccinating 69 percent of the nearly 28,000 people in its prisons. The decision to prioritize providing the vaccine to people behind bars has been hotly contested in states across the U.S. Some argue that prisons, like assisted living centers, should be a priority for the vaccine because people inside are living in such close proximity, and many are aging and in poor health.

Such a policy has met much resistance from politicians who continue to push a tough-on-crime narrative and demonize people convicted of crimes. Nationwide, one-quarter of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have received at least one vaccine shot.

Illinois saw a frightening spike in cases at the end of 2020, as I reported for Truthout, with some prison facilities seeing one-third to one-half of people infected. Just a few months later, the state has greatly contained the virus through mass testing and vaccination.

Illinois has made a “remarkable turnaround,” says Alan Mills, attorney at the Uptown People’s Law Center, which currently is in a consent decree with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) following a lawsuit to improve medical conditions. In the last year, Mills points out, there have been 10,000 cases of COVID among those incarcerated, and more than 80 deaths. Now, as the IDOC reports, most prisons’ COVID case totals are in the single digits, with many at zero.

Some States Are Deprioritizing Vaccines in Prison

Florida was one of the last states to begin providing the vaccine in prison. Back in February 2021, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized other states where they were “vaccinating drug addicts instead of seniors.” Early in April, vaccines finally went out to Florida prisons.

After Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced that those in prison would get the vaccine, lawmakers passed a resolution to give the vaccine to “law-abiding” Kansans before “healthy incarcerated individuals.” Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, who wrote the resolution, said that the decision would mean that people who had been convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses “would be offered life-saving vaccines before their victims.”

Elsewhere, states only implemented the COVID vaccine after a court ruling. In Oregon, after seven people who were incarcerated filed a lawsuit, a federal judge ordered that state officials make the vaccine available in prison. A state judge in New York ruled that people in prison could not be excluded from receiving the vaccine.

About half of states included prisons in their early plans for rollout of the vaccine. Among them was Mississippi, where offers to take the shot also came with incentives and intimidation. Commissioner Burl Cain (former warden of the notorious Angola prison, a former slave plantation) boasted about handing out bags of Famous Amos-brand cookies at one prison. “You know, it’s kind of an incentive to take the shot and that’s a big deal to them,” he told the press. “So, they like to get the cookies.” Those who refuse the vaccine are being denied access to visitations, work programs and transfers.

Back in Illinois, Sen. Terry Bryant, a retired prison administrator, led the charge against Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to vaccinate people in prison. Prioritizing the most vulnerable over a “healthy, young criminal,” Bryant said in a statement, was “unconscionable.” Her sentiments were echoed by Illinois Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, and Rep. Dave Severin, who was “outraged.”

Governor Pritzker defended the move at a press conference in January, pointing out that the Trump administration had made the decision to vaccinate those in federal prisons, so he was following suit: “That’s where we landed.”

Most People Incarcerated in Illinois Prisons Accepted the Shot. Most Guards Didn’t.

I talked to several people inside prison and their loved ones to get their reaction to vaccinations in Illinois prisons, and the loosening of COVID restrictions. After living in fear for the last year, they were grateful for the vaccine.

Joseph Dole, an incarcerated writer and activist at Stateville Correctional Center, sent me an email message on February 28, 2021, just 10 minutes after receiving the first shot. “First they put us on level 4 lockdown for the day,” he wrote, “like ten people came on each gallery ― tac team members, national guard, nurses.” They checked his ID and told him to put his shoulder up to the bars. It was, he said, “so fast that I didn’t see her do it or feel it. Easy peasy.” Dole did not experience side effects from the first shot.

Others did experience symptoms — and reported being denied treatment. Raúl Dorado, also at Stateville, called me a few days later describing his experience. His arm where he received the shot was “swollen up, the size of an egg.” When he told a nurse, she said, “It’s normal, it will go away.” Dorado’s cellmate complained of body aches and chills, but was refused Tylenol. Another person had an allergic reaction, his chest and lymph nodes became swollen, but he had to just wait it out.

A month later, Dole wrote to me again the day after receiving his second shot. It “put me on my ass,” he said. “Last night was the worst night of sleep I have ever gotten. I had fever, chills, body aches, and a nasty headache, but seem to be doing okay now.”

As WBEZ, the Chicago NPR station, reported, 63 percent of people in Illinois prisons received the first dose of the vaccine. In sharp contrast, only 27 percent of Illinois prison guards accepted the shot. (Vaccination is not required for the job.)

In an email exchange, IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess told Truthout that by mid-April, 69 percent of the incarcerated population had received the vaccine. This places Illinois significantly ahead of most of the country. By comparison, the rate is 40 percent in California, 46 percent in Arkansas and 53 percent in Oklahoma.

The number of prison guards vaccinated in Illinois is currently at a reported 36 percent. This number is probably somewhat inaccurate, as some may have received the shot in their home communities. But regardless of the exact number, the rate of guard vaccination is still dismally low.

Visits Restored

More than a year after prisons were closed due to the pandemic, IDOC recently announced a plan to restore visits at its 25 correctional centers. It includes installing plexiglass barriers between incarcerated individuals and visitors. Guards will do temperature checks and provide masks to visitors.

Talking through plexiglass, wearing masks in a noisy room, could be difficult. “I don’t know how we’re going to hear one another,” said Melly Rios, whose husband Benny is at Stateville. “I just want to be in the same room with him.”

Chrisoula Drivas, who has a childhood friend in Dixon Correctional Center, is disappointed. “There’s zero contact. This type of visit could have happened last summer.” After phase one of 60 days, she is “hoping for at least an embrace.”

“I’m very much looking forward to a visit, I miss my visits,” Kim Henry told Truthout. Her daughter’s father, who she calls the “love of my life,” is at Menard Correctional Center, one of the oldest facilities in the state. He didn’t want to take the vaccine, Henry explained, “he doesn’t trust things like that.” The reluctance of Henry’s loved one, who is African American, is not uncommon. It stems from this country’s history of racially motivated medical abuse, such as the notorious Tuskegee Experiment.

While it is not official policy, Henry’s loved one claims that guards are coercing people, telling them they must accept the vaccine if they want to have visits. “He wants visits,” Henry said, “so he’s planning on taking it.”

Others report that guards are acting beyond IDOC policy. Katrina Burlet says her friend in Graham Correctional Center has heard from guards that families must also be vaccinated in order to have visits. “He is frustrated,” she said, “He’s being told guards aren’t required to get the shot, but his family is.”

Something Changed in the Winter

While Illinois was slow to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials appear to have learned a lesson and are now working with those advocating on behalf of those incarcerated, among them Restore Justice, a statewide criminal legal reform organization. Truthout spoke with Jobi Cates, executive director and founder of Restore Justice. “We couldn’t have asked for a more efficient rollout,” Cates reflected on vaccination efforts.

In the beginning of the pandemic, the state’s response to COVID in prisons went “extremely poorly,” she said. IDOC had a new director, Rob Jeffreys, when the pandemic hit. Illinois prisons were run as “fiefdoms operating with their own set of rules.” People incarcerated were “sitting ducks, having COVID brought to them by staff who were not taking COVID seriously.”

Yet thanks to pressure from advocates, incarcerated people and families, the state shifted its policies.

“Something changed in the winter,” Cates observed. “Then IDOC changed its approach. It was a very marked change, from working on their own to inviting help.”

When the vaccine came, dozens of groups were asked to help with messaging. “That was a radical change from the first period of the pandemic,” she said.

However, Cates said, the fact that so many staff are refusing the vaccine continues to leave people who are incarcerated vulnerable.

“There’s a huge issue with staff not choosing to take the vaccine,” Cates commented. “I think it’s obscene.”