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Advocates Question Monetary Incentives For Prison Vaccinations

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The Virginia Department of Corrections is providing incentive to incarcerated people who get vaccinated, something that advocates say sends the wrong message.

This story was updated to include a comment from the ACLU of Virginia

The Virginia Department of Corrections is offering care packages and free phone calls to people incarcerated in prisons who take the coronavirus vaccine. Advocates say the deal sends the wrong message. 

VADOC officials say they want everyone to get inoculated as soon as possible. 

“This effort is important to all in the VADOC community – our staff, inmates and the community outside the walls, where our staff and inmates’ families live,” said VADOC Director Harold Clarke. “We hope this campaign leads to better health in VADOC facilities and in the commonwealth itself.”

Virginia began Phase 1b vaccinations last week, which includes all Department of Corrections staff and incarcerated people. VADOC medical staff are administering the Moderna vaccine provided by the Virginia Department of Health.  

Incarcerated people who accept the vaccine will receive free email access and phone credits, as well as a care package with commissary items and snacks some time in March. 

As of Friday, Jan.15, only 648 people incarcerated in Virginia’s prisons had received the first of two vaccine doses that will be administered about 28 days apart. Still, the department has a long way to go with an average daily prison population of about 24,000

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections did not say how many have declined the vaccine. But advocates say they’re not surprised to hear they’re turning it down. 

Lynetta Thompson, a former employee of the federal Bureau of Prisons and advocate for Virginia’s incarcerated population, says there’s a lot of distrust. 

“When you feel like someone cares about you, then you trust what they're doing,” Thompson said. “But if they're not doing what they have power and authority to do, and then you can come back and say what, ‘trust me with this,’ do we not think that they have common sense like you and I have?”

The ACLU of Virginia, however, said it is good to see the department incentivizing people who are incarcerated to choose vaccination.

“While the state should be more deliberate in its efforts to release people from prisons and jails who are vulnerable to COVID-19 and not a risk to others, it is important that anyone still being held in Virginia prisons and jails be prioritized to receive the vaccine as soon as possible because of the documented vulnerability to infection in congregate settings,” said legal director Eden Heilman.

Throughout the pandemic, advocacy groups have fought for widespread testing in Virginia prisons and early access to the vaccine.  They’ve also demanded the state expand its early-release program to include a wider pool of people. About 1,400 people in state custody have been released in an effort to ease crowding and curb the spread of the virus. 

VADOC spokesperson Lisa Kinney said the department is providing information about the vaccine to staff and incarcerated people to help them make an informed decision. 

“Our pharmacist has recorded interviews with medical and public safety authorities and shared those with staff and inmates; we are running vaccine information on the inmate Wellness Channel that we created after the pandemic started in order to provide health and wellness information to the inmates; we are sharing CDC info; we are sharing photos of DOC staff getting their vaccines, etc.”

As of Thursday, there are 481 active COVID-19 cases among people imprisoned in Virginia and 52 have died. There are 312 active cases among VADOC staff and three deaths. 

Vaccination numbers for staff and incarcerated people are now updated on the VADOC website every Friday.

Editor's note: People interviewed in this story use the word "inmate" to describe people incarcerated in prisons. At VPM, we are committed to using people-first language in our reporting but do not edit quotations.

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Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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