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Vaccination refusal rate among prisoners holds steady amid differing views

  • Syringes of COVID-19 vaccine are prepared for injection at Central Vermont Medical Center on Dec. 16, 2020.

Published: 5/9/2021 10:05:19 PM
Modified: 5/9/2021 10:05:18 PM

Steve Kinney, an imprisoned Vermont, took the COVID-19 vaccination shot and said he felt fine after.

Zachary Butts, who is also incarcerated, has not taken the shot, citing a distrust of the corrections system and a desire for more information, according to his fiancee Heather Bailey.

The two men are among more than 1,200 Vermont incarcerated individuals who have been offered the vaccine across the state’s correctional system, which is currently reporting a refusal rate of 34% (810 people who have gotten the shot; 421 have declined).

That’s only slightly lower than last month, when the refusal rate was 35%. Clinics have now been offered at all of the Vermont prison facilities and all incarcerated individuals are eligible for the vaccine.

Kinney, who was lodged at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, said he got the shot when it was offered to Vermont prisoners there. He has since been transferred to the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland.

He said he had no second thoughts about whether he would take the shot and trusted that nothing would go wrong.

“Why not?” he responded when asked why he took the shot. The only side effect he experienced was sleeping more a day after getting the second dose, he said.

His advice to other people in prison: “Just take it and get it over with.”

The latest figures show that 110 Vermont prisoners in Mississippi have heeded that advice, and 52 have refused, for a refusal rate of 32%.

Bailey, who said Butts is being held at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, said she has talked to him about taking the shot, and he has so far declined.

She said Butts told her he had asked for informational pamphlets prior to taking the shot to find out more about it and its side effects.

That request was refused, Bailey said Butts told her.

“They don’t hand you the information unless you get the vaccine,” Bailey said Butts told her.

Rachel Feldman, a corrections department spokesperson, said that the department’s practice isn’t just to hand out pamphlets to those receiving the shots.

“It’s our practice to hand out pamphlets regardless of an inmate asking for one,” she said.

Bailey on Friday reiterated that Butts told her he couldn’t get the information he was seeking.

At the Newport prison where Butts is incarcerated, 200 incarcerated people have taken at least one dose of the vaccine, while 114 have refused, for a refusal rate of about 36%, according to the corrections department numbers.

Newport is the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak at an in-state prison. It started in late February and resulted in 179 cases among incarcerated people and 24 staff members. That outbreak has since subsided.

A larger outbreak took place over the summer, when 185 of the 219 Vermonters in the Mississippi prison tested positive for COVID-19.

Kyle Lowe, a Newport man jailed at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, said some people in prison he’s talked to are skeptical of the vaccine or have been put off by reports of vaccine-induced illnesses.

“People don’t trust them,” he said.

Lowe believes a broader distrust of authority plays a role too.

“There’s guys in here that don’t treat us like human beings,” he said. “That’s where the distrust comes from.”

Lowe initially planned to pass on the vaccine himself. But out of concern for sick family members, he decided to get it.

“My arm hurt like hell for a week after,” he said.

Stacy Hubbell said her husband, Travis Hubbell, incarcerated at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans, doesn’t plan to get vaccinated, fearing that the vaccines were developed too quickly.

She said even if her husband were not in prison, he still would not receive the vaccine.

The Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury has the highest refusal rate with 44%. Meanwhile, the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the state’s only women’s prison, has the lowest refusal rate at 22%.

Feldman said it would be “irresponsible to speculate” about what might account for the different rates of uptake.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose department has oversight over the state’s Prisoners’ Rights Office, said he’s encouraging incarcerated individuals to get the vaccine, particularly because they live in tight and confined quarters.

“Those who are deciding not to be vaccinated are doing it of their own accord,” Valerio said. “I don’t think that’s a good choice, but I’m not them. They have a right to make that choice.”

Valerio said he understands that incarcerated people may have a distrust of the corrections department.

“I’m not talking about corrections. I’m just talking about vaccinations,” he said in his advocacy for incarcerated people to take the shot. “The arguments against it, to me, don’t wash.”

Feldman, the corrections department spokesperson, said Friday that the department is working on an educational effort to help address the concerns of those who have so far refused vaccination.

She said she could not discuss specifics of that educational campaign until it’s in place.

“We do hope to continue seeing that refusal rate drop,” she said. “We’re optimistic that people are going to talk to each other and help encourage each other to get vaccinated.”




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