by Daniel A. Rosen |
Recent news reports have informed those of us incarcerated in Virginia that the COVID-19 vaccine is coming soon – we’ll be part of Group 1B sometime in January, apparently. According to those same reports, some Virginians are angry that inmates would be put in line ahead of the general public.
I can understand the frustration around “rewarding” those who made poor decisions and landed behind bars. One middle-aged man interviewed on the news and worried about an elderly parent demanded reconsideration of this plan: “So, if my father had broken the law, he’d be better off, and get the vaccine sooner?” the man asked. But it’s really not an appropriate way to view complex public health challenges. And if he was concerned about a family member or friend serving time, he’d probably feel differently.
Most people in the free world have the ability to keep their distance from others, and many can even stay home. They can go to the store and buy hand sanitizer and disinfectant. They can get masks as needed, and find effective ones. And they likely don’t share living quarters the size of a parking space – including a bathroom – with a stranger.
We here have little ability to protect ourselves, from COVID and other diseases. 75 men share a common area the size of an average home. Aside from close living quarters, we share phones, showers, dayroom space, microwaves, email kiosks, and everything else. The cleaning products are so weak you could add them to your coffee and not notice. Many inmates are elderly and in poor health, with chronic underlying health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and high cholesterol. This is the inevitable result of over-long sentences and years of poor quality food and health care in the prison system here.
If you believe the official statistics, the conditions here at this facility – Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia’s largest prison – have resulted in almost a third of inmates (and officers too) contracting COVID. But over the last ten months, facility-wide COVID testing has been conducted just three times. We know the real infection rate is much higher than the official numbers reflect; everyone here can name other inmates who had clear virus symptoms and quietly suffered through them without a fuss. No one wanted to move to the quarantine unit on another part of the compound, even knowing it was likely the right thing to do.
In my cellblock, three people tested positive, but about five times that number had obvious COVID symptoms in the late summer last year. An antibody test would likely demonstrate far higher past spread of the virus here than the DOC stats claim. The virus comes in through officers and civilian staff, of course, and once it does, it’s hard to stop.
Beyond the immediate health impact of early vaccination in protecting the vulnerable population here, there are other considerations. Like many free citizens out there, inmates have been unable to do much of anything for ten months. Educational and treatment programs have been cancelled, visits suspended, and religious gatherings curtailed. Offenders rejoining society when their sentences end leave here without reentry planning resources, identification documents, and community assistance. Early vaccinations can help return this facility to normal operations, and give inmates back productive ways to spend their time that better prepare them to rejoin society.
Of course, many here will be reluctant to trust the vaccine, and its delivery by Virginia corrections officials. The rumors are rampant that they’re experimenting on us somehow or giving us something else. Few inmates will take the annual flu shot when it’s offered here, even when they’re bribed with snacks from the commissary. So the vaccine uptake may be far below what prison officials hope for.
Information materials already distributed in housing units tout the coming vaccine’s benefits and safety, but probably won’t have much effect on the skeptics. Some of us try to encourage others to get the jab, to get things running normally again, but mistrust is high and not easily overcome. Even many staff and officers have apparently refused, and their inoculation is even more important than inmates’ – the virus can’t enter these walls without them.
I worry every single day about my 70- something-year-old mother and stepfather out there waiting for a vaccine. So I understand how that anxious man on the evening news feels, and share his concern. Every time they go grocery shopping or to a doctor’s appointment, I cringe. Hopefully South Carolina, where they live, gets its vaccination program in gear without further delay. I’d like to see them when I get out later this year, like so many others waiting to reunite with loved ones out there.
To those unhappy about inmates getting vaccinated before the general public, I’d say: remember that’s someone’s brother, son, or father you’re dismissing as unworthy. Remember that 95% of us will rejoin society sometime soon – and that the state is now responsible for our safety. While 5% of Virginians overall have contracted the virus, at many correctional facilities in Virginia and elsewhere, more than half of inmates have been infected.
The best thing DOC could have done was release inmates early who were eligible – as the state legislature authorized them to do. Thinning our ranks to create more space is the single most effective counter to the virus. But DOC has dragged its feet on early release, mostly using it to benefit inmates serving state time in local jails.
This virus has created unprecedented challenges that aren’t easily overcome in a prison setting. Officers and staff are faced with a lot, here and at home. It’s written on their faces after all these months. And we inmates are trying to make it through our prison bid without becoming a statistic – or worse, leaving here in a box.
[Ed. Note: As of March 3rd, all inmates at GRCC who wanted one had received their second dose of the Moderna vaccine.]