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People in Prison Need Informed Access to COVID-19 Vaccines

Over 2500 incarcerated people have died from COVID-19 since last March, when prisons and jails drove infection rates across the country, and advocates’ calls for action to save lives went unheeded. Now that free vaccines are available to every adult in the nation, people in prison need equal access, too- but they also need access to all the available data, on how the vaccines are made, how they work, and why they are safe.

States have taken drastically different approaches to vaccinating incarcerated populations, despite recommendations that they be prioritized along with other high-risk groups. In some states, imprisoned people were among the first prioritized for vaccines. In Oregon and New York, they were not prioritized until class actions resulted in court orders to make vaccines available in prisons. In keeping with a general lack of transparency about their response to the pandemic, Georgia Dept. of Corrections did not report any information about their vaccine rollout until this week, after they had reportedly administered over 6000 doses, which lead the UCLA COVID Behind Bars Project to give it an “F” on their data reporting and quality scorecard. Alabama received a “D” grade.

Now, people in prison are slowly gaining access to vaccines- but because mistrust of both correctional and medical systems runs deep, many are refusing the vaccines when offered. Without internet access, people must rely on TV, newspapers, and word of mouth- from friends and family, and from correctional staff, whose hesitancy may be as contagious and deadly as the virus itself.

Across the country, carceral systems have ignored opportunities to save lives and to protect people in our prisons. Now, prison officials are missing yet another opportunity by administering vaccines without informed consent. Michael McCoy told The Marshall Project the warden at his facility offered snacks as incentives, rather than addressing questions and concerns about the vaccine: “Instead of with confidence and trust, you’re going to bribe them with cookies and chips? What does he think we are?”

For people from whom the state has withheld so many freedoms, we will remain vigilant against manipulated consent: retaliatory measures such as refusing eligibility for transfers, work release, visitation and other incentives to those who refuse the vaccine. We recognize the importance of getting information about the COVID-19 virus and vaccines to everyone, and protecting the right to fully-informed, consensual medical care.

SCHR has adapted an information pack originally developed by AMEND, with support from our partner organizations Women on the Rise, Southern Poverty Law Center, Southerners on New Ground, Georgia NAACP, Georgia Innocence Project, and Georgia Justice Project. Our clients report that the information we mailed made them more comfortable with their choice to get vaccinated, which is exactly why we need your help to get it to as many folks as possible! If you know someone in prison or jail, please print and mail them this information so they may be better prepared to decide whether to receive the vaccine when it is offered at their facility.

**A note on J&J: We recently sent an update to address the Johnson & Johnson pause – also adapted from AMEND’s. For additional information on the comparative risk of blood clots from the one-dose J&J vaccine versus the virus itself, this infographic shows the risk of blood clots from COVID-19, the J&J vaccine, birth control, and general occurrence.