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Increasing portion of Vermont prisoners refusing COVID-19 vaccinations

Published: 4/21/2021 10:03:43 PM
Modified: 4/21/2021 10:07:25 PM

Prisons have been a hotspot in Vermont’s COVID-19 crisis. And yet, a surprising number of incarcerated people and staff members have refused vaccinations.

James Baker, Vermont’s interim corrections commissioner, said two weeks ago he wasn’t happy about the rate of vaccine refusal among incarcerated people — and now, things are even worse.

Figures released this week say 737 incarcerated individuals have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but 411 have refused vaccination — a refusal rate of 35.8%. Earlier this month, Baker reported 585 prisoners had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, but 206 refused it altogether — a refusal rate of about 26%.

COVID-19 has been a serious problem at Vermont prisons. At the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, an outbreak that began in late February produced 179 cases among incarcerated people and 24 among staff members. That outbreak is under control now.

In summer, 185 of the 219 Vermonters in a Mississippi prison came down with COVID-19.

Earlier this year, Baker said 591 prison staff members were offered vaccinations, but only 467 took the shot.

Prisoner rights groups, including the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the state’s prisoners’ rights office, have been urging the state to make incarcerated people a priority for vaccination. They cite the tight spaces within prison walls that make social distancing difficult, if not impossible, and outbreaks that have occurred inside the prisons.

Falko Schilling, advocacy director for the ACLU of Vermont, said he isn’t sure of the specific reasons behind the refusal rates.

“We would still encourage people to get vaccinated if they have the opportunity, to protect themselves and those around them,” he said.

Josh Hoe, a policy analyst with Safe & Just Michigan, a nonprofit organization that has been looking at COVID-19 vaccination in prisons, said the refusal rate for incarcerated individuals around the country is around 25%.

While he doesn’t know the specifics behind the Vermont numbers, he said there are typically several reasons incarcerated people would refuse, including distrust of the prison system. He said some prison systems have been able to boost vaccination rates through education campaigns led by people who used to be in prison and by bringing in outside medical providers to administer the vaccination programs.

The department will offer more clinics this week for incarcerated people who recently became eligible for the vaccine, said Rachel Feldman, the Vermont corrections department spokesperson.

“We’re working on numerous things to educate and inform and answer questions for the incarcerated population,” she said.

The goal is to offer two doses of vaccine to every prisoner by May 13, Feldman said.

The Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury has the highest refusal rate with 45%. The Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the state’s only women’s prison, has the lowest refusal rate at 23%

The Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, which had the largest in-state COVID-19 outbreak, has a refusal rate of 36%.

Feldman said she could not say what exact factors are behind the refusal rates.

“We’re respectful of people’s medical privacy,” she said. “This is something that they can opt to have or choose not to have, the same as the general population can.”

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