In just a few days, on March 20th, it will have been a year since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in prisons in Massachusetts and Georgia. The next day, Anthony Cheek would become the first prisoner to die from the virus at age 49. The weeks that followed saw an exponential rise in this new and unknown disease around the world, touching the lives of every person on the planet. Possibly no one has felt the impact as heavily as people who have been incarcerated during the spread.
As experts and officials around the world raced to get control on exponentially increasing numbers of COVID-19, getting a handle on the number of cases within prisons proved especially challenging. As in many other close living communities, prisons saw the coronavirus rapidly spread from person to person with very few options to slow its spread. The safety measures that were able to be put in place also exacted their toll. Family visits were restricted, recreational activities were canceled, and isolation time was increased cutting many prisoners off from vital support systems in such a challenging time.
And yet, here we are a year later with hope on the horizon. There have been three different vaccines for COVID-19 approved by the FDA for distribution within the United States: Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, and now the race becomes how to distribute them as quickly as possible. The rollout of vaccines has been largely left up to individual states to determine who will be prioritized and how the vaccines will be administrated. Nine states across the country, including Massachusetts, placed incarcerated individuals in phase 1 of their vaccine plans, hoping to be able to protect this vulnerable population.
But the quest to vaccinate incarcerated individuals faces an uphill battle. As in the population at large, there is a lot of misinformation about the vaccine circulating in the prisons and at other times there is simply no information. On top of sifting through the misinformation, prisoners face another barrier: overcoming distrust in the prison medical system. Many prisoners have good reason to be skeptical of prison medical services, with many conditions going under diagnosed and untreated in incarcerated individuals. The Marshall Project conducted a survey of people behind bars asking about their feelings on the vaccine and the majority of the 136 participants said they would get the vaccine when they are able to. Even people wary of the vaccine were interested and said the would be willing to be vaccinated, “if their questions were answered, if their friends and family said it was safe, or after guards received their immunizations first.”
Unfortunately that last condition is proving to be a challenging one, with more than half of prison guards in Massachusetts declining their COVID-19 vaccine, a pattern that is seen across the country. This is why friends and family are even more important in helping their loved ones find the answers they need. To this end, The Marshall project has created a vaccine FAQ specifically designed for incarcerated people in both English and Spanish. Additionally you can send these FAQs to your loved ones for free using the app: Ameelio: Photo Cards to Prison. Take the time to educate yourself so that you can help your loved one be safe and stay healthy.