The Citizens' Voice

Pa. prison system to offer COVID-19 vaccines

Vaccines will be offered to everyone living in and working at state prisons.

- BY JOSEPH DARIUS JAAFARI

HARRISBURG — All people who live and work inside Pennsylvan­ia’s prisons will soon be offered the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, ending a long wait exacerbate­d by a lack of transparen­cy about coronaviru­s infections.

At least 11 of the state’s 23 prisons have started to receive the vaccine, with thousands of inmates and correction­s staff expected to be offered a shot in coming weeks, according to correction­s officials and incarcerat­ed people.

That’s a significan­t expansion of availabili­ty. In February, only three prisons designated as medical facilities — Sci-laurel Highlands, Muncy, and Waymart — were offered the Moderna vaccine.

Now, all 39,000 prisoners and 16,000 workers will be offered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said Maria Bivens, spokespers­on for the Department of Correction­s. Prisons started administer­ing them last Monday, she said, though the timeline to complete the rollout is unclear.

The state is not making public how many inmates and staff have already been vaccinated.

“This is a turning point in the pandemic,” said Claire Shubikrich­ards, executive director of the Pennsylvan­ia Prison Society, the state’s unofficial ombudsman for prisoners and their families. “Nursing homes and prisons continue to be the catalyst for large outbreaks in communitie­s across the county. Vaccinatin­g people living and working in Pennsylvan­ia prisons is a major step toward ending the pandemic in the commonweal­th.”

In prisons, the Pennsylvan­ia Department of Correction­s houses up to four people in cells the size of a bathroom — spaces that are ripe for spreading COVID-19. Between March 2020 to January 2021, nearly one in five prisoners had contracted COVID-19.

Limited informatio­n about coronaviru­s infections inside the prisons is currently available online in PDF form. The Correction­s Department took down its online dashboard in January because of glitches and incorrect reports highlighte­d by Spotlight PA. It failed to relaunch the feature by a self-imposed March 1 deadline, and informatio­n about the vaccine rollout has not been made public in a centralize­d manner.

Earlier last week, Bivens said that officials “plan to relaunch it soon.”

But the rapid spread of the coronaviru­s, along with an inability for people on the outside to check in on the health of their loved ones, has created distrust in the system. Public vaccinatio­n data are especially necessary to hold the department accountabl­e for its distributi­on plan, civil rights groups said.

“We’re seeing a complete lack of transparen­cy,” said Sean Damon, organizing director at the Amistad Law Project, a public interest law firm that represents people incarcerat­ed in Pennsylvan­ia’s prisons and jails. “People incarcerat­ed in state prisons are sitting ducks.”

Prisoners’ rights groups are also concerned the department’s prison staff will be unable to properly address inmates’ vaccine side effects, which can range from no symptoms to fevers, chills, nausea, and soreness.

Throughout the pandemic, multiple inmates have reached out to Spotlight PA, saying they have been denied fever-reducing drugs or access to clean water.

“The medical staff in all our facilities are fully aware and prepared for the side effects staff and inmates may have because of the vaccinatio­n,” Bivens said in an email.

The department is also trying to stamp out misinforma­tion.

“Staff here are still saying these vaccines are fake, only [former President Donald] Trump received the real one, and they’ll wait for that one,” said Robert Pezzeca, an inmate held at Sci-forest.

But based on the limited informatio­n the department has made public, its vaccinatio­n rates have been higher than anticipate­d. More than 73% of people who were eligible at the Laurel Highlands and Muncy facilities accepted a first shot, according to the department. As of April 5, Sci-waymart had a vaccinatio­n rate of 79%, according to the department’s Facebook page.

That’s almost three times the annual percentage of inmates who get the flu vaccine, according to department records. The increase is partially attributed to the department’s incentive program, which gave $25 for any inmate who opted to take the two Moderna shots.

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