WASHINGTON - All inmates will be provided the opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccination by mid-May, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced Thursday.
In a statement, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Michael D. Carvajel said the federal agency is focused on several priority areas, including mitigating the risk of COVID-19 infection among inmates, staff and detainees.
"All Bureau staff have been offered one of the COVID-19 vaccines, and by April 19 all inmates will be eligible for a vaccine; by mid-May, we anticipate that all inmates will have been provided the opportunity to be vaccinated," Carvajel wrote.
The agency said it deployed a vaccination strategy developed in partnership with the federal government’s COVID Vaccine and Therapeutics Operation to administer vaccines in all institutions.Nationwide, less than 20% of state and federal prisoners had been vaccinated as of April 8, according to data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. That compares with about 40% of the general adult population that has received at least one shot, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And prison staff have also shown high rates of declining the vaccines, which has exacerbated inmate vaccine skepticism, advocates say.
The slow rollout of vaccines in prisons came despite the CDC and public health officials recommending prioritizing vaccinations for inmates and prison staff to protect them and their communities from the coronavirus.
U.S. prisons have been coronavirus hot spots. Nationwide, more than 390,000 incarcerated people and 107,000 staff members have contracted the coronavirus over the last year, according to data collected by the AP and The Marshall Project. About 3 in 10 prisoners have tested positive for the virus, a rate much higher than that of the general population. The infections have proved fatal for more than 2,500 prisoners and nearly 200 staff members.
"On January 28, 2021, the Bureau was presented a certificate of achievement recognizing the agency for leading all jurisdictions and Federal entities in its rate of vaccination utilization, having the highest percentage of vaccines administered per doses allocated across all of the United States," Carvajel said.
At that time, COVID-19 vaccines had been delivered to staff and inmates at more than half of the agency’s correctional facilities across the U.S., according to the statement.
The bureau said it will now make the vaccine available to all staff and inmates who wish to receive it.
"Recently, we achieved a milestone in the distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines, exceeding 100,000 total doses administered to staff and inmates," Carvajel said. "Increased allocations of the vaccine to the Bureau have allowed us to vaccinate staff and inmates much more quickly than initial estimates had suggested."
But Advocates for prison inmates say more needs to be done to educate prisoners about coronavirus vaccines because large numbers of them are declining the shots. Prison officials say they are providing information about the vaccines to prisoners. But outside experts and trusted community members need to be brought in, advocates say.
Officials at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, held town halls and posted information around the prison before vaccinations began in January. But more than 200 of the nearly 550 inmates who were offered the shots refused to take them.
In Massachusetts, more than 5,500 state and county prisoners have refused the vaccines, compared with nearly 7,800 who have received the first of two doses, officials say.
"As a Black man, I... think about the history of the medical racism and experimentation with Black and brown people in this country. That resonates with people who are incarcerated," said John Hart, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice who studies prison conditions.
"They have to do a much better job of bringing in people who are more trustworthy, such as elders in the community or people of color who have a lot of credibility," he said. "We won’t be able to get out of this pandemic without taking prison facilities very seriously and that includes correctional staff and incarcerated people."
Black people make up disproportionately large percentages of both prison populations and patients with severe COVID-19 outcomes. In a survey of people in prisons and jails late last year by the University of Washington's School of Public Health, 37% of Black respondents were willing to receive the vaccine, compared with 45% of all respondents.
Complicating matters has been that states were slow to make vaccinations available to prisoners. Inmates in 45 states and Washington, D.C., are now eligible for vaccines, but several weeks ago, only about half of states were offering prisoners shots, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. By the end of March, Arkansas and Florida had not yet begun vaccinating prisoners, while a few states say they have offered vaccinations to every adult in their prisons. Eight states have not reported how many prisoners have been vaccinated.
The Bureau manages the health and treatment of approximately 140,000 inmates in facilities and residential reentry centers.
"The number of hospitalized inmates is on a significant downward trajectory, suggesting that our efforts to minimize new cases are becoming more effective. COVID-19 numbers have dropped significantly across nearly all institutions even as inmate movement has resumed, and despite communities re-opening," Carvajel continued.
Efforts to persuade inmates to get vaccinated have been uneven across the country, with some going to greater lengths than others. Inmates in some prisons say they are not receiving important education.
In North Carolina, state prison officials offered incentives to inmates to get vaccinated, including five days off their sentences, credits at canteens, extra visits from relatives and more phone privileges. Half the nearly 29,000 state prisoners have received vaccination shots so far during the ongoing vaccine rollout, said John Bull, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety.
"We know that there’s lots of hesitancy out there, not just in our prisons but in the country at large," Bull said. "The prison system here in North Carolina has been working very hard to get prisoners vaccinated."
Massachusetts state prison officials said they put together a vaccine awareness campaign with input from former inmates and health experts. It included showing prisoners videos featuring pastors and even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, according to the state Department of Correction.
Correction officials say about 70% of Massachusetts state inmates, not including county prisoners, have received their first shot of the vaccine.
But in Georgia, some prisoners told The Marshall Project in a survey that they received no information about the vaccine until they were asked to sign a form indicating whether they wanted to receive it. Prison officials said inmates did receive vaccine information from a CDC website.
An inmate at Danbury who refused the vaccine said he was taken to see a dental assistant who was asking prisoners if they would get shots as vaccinations were about to begin. When he asked her if she had any information about the vaccine, she said that she did not and that she wasn’t going to take it herself, he said.
"I felt nervous about not having any information, and I was concerned that the ... staff member administering the vaccine wasn’t willing to take it," the inmate said in a court filing in a lawsuit by inmates over coronavirus protections at the prison. His name was not disclosed.
The inmate said he later changed his mind and decided to get vaccinated after getting more information from relatives in the medical field and seeing others in the prison get shots — showing how talking to trusted sources outside prison can ease misgivings about the vaccines.
As of April 6, 2021, the Bureau had 406 positive COVID-19 inmate cases and 47,227 inmates recovered in federal prisons.
Since March of last year, the agency has transferred approximately 24,000 inmates to home confinement, with almost 7,000 transferred directly under the CARES Act — a 250% increase in home confinement placements since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.