By Jolie McCullough, Texas Tribune
Texas’ prisons and jails have been coronavirus hot spots throughout the pandemic. At least about 200 Texas inmates have died with COVID-19. So have more than 30 people who worked inside the state’s prisons — and countless others have spread the virus inside lockups and into the surrounding communities.
But it’s unclear when the still-limited doses of virus vaccines will be made available to the more than 186,000 people detained in Texas prisons and jails. That timeline is among several factors Texas prison officials either haven’t decided or haven’t publicly released more than nine months into the pandemic and weeks after leaders knew a vaccine was on the horizon.
And if the doses remain voluntary once they do arrive for inmates, lockup staff will need to convince incarcerated people — many of whom are skeptical of prison medical care — to get the shot.
In Texas, health care workers and people in long-term care facilities like nursing homes are at the front of the line to receive the vaccine. Several states have earmarked doses for the incarcerated soon after those initial groups of health care workers and first responders. Because of the disease-prone environment they live and work in, advocates in the state and throughout the country have urged officials to prioritize inmates and corrections staff to get the coronavirus vaccine rapidly.
But Texas officials have so far remained largely silent on when people behind bars may receive the doses.
At a press conference last week, Gov. Greg Abbott skirted a reporter’s question about when prisoners would get the vaccine. And a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson declined to answer questions on how and when the vaccine would be distributed in the state prison system, referring questions to the governor’s office and the University of Texas Medical Branch, which is handling vaccine distribution for the state prison system.
Though seven Texas prisons were set to receive 1,100 doses this week, according to the state health department’s weekly distribution list, a UTMB spokesperson said that only health care workers at the units were in line to get the shot so far.
Spokespeople for the governor did not respond to repeated questions since last week, including whether the second-phase of people to receive the vaccine — those 65 and older or with certain chronic medical conditions — will include inmates that fall into those categories as well. A health department spokesperson said anyone 65 and older will be eligible for the vaccine.
Whenever the doses do arrive for inmates and other staff, however, the lockups will likely need to convince at least some of them to sign up for the vaccine if it isn’t mandatory. A spokesperson for the state health department said Tuesday that the vaccine can’t yet be required because it has so far only been authorized for emergency use. A Harris County jail spokesperson said last week that, at this time, vaccines will be voluntary for jail inmates when they become available. A spokesperson for TDCJ did not know as of Tuesday if the vaccine would be voluntary for its prisoners.
The governor has said previously that the shot will be voluntary for everyone. His office did not respond to questions on if that would apply to prisons and jails, too.
Prisoner advocates said there is a lot of fear and distrust of the vaccine from inmates and their loved ones on the outside. It’s a wariness that many people in the free world feel as well with the rapidly developed vaccine. But prison health and condition experts said there are multiple reasons that exaggerate the skepticism, from a history of medical experimentation on prisoners to a lack of information in lockups.
“It speaks to the incredible distrust that exists inside prisons of medical care and whether people feel like they’re being treated with dignity or respect and whether anyone cares about their safety,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and prison conditions expert at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs and law school. “I don’t think it’s justified, it’s just understandable.”
Inmates and their family members have referred to prison experiments where, in the last century, prisoners in the United States have been infected with viruses or bacteria to monitor symptoms or test treatments. Often, among the Black community, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study is cited, where Black men with syphilis were untreated and instead monitored to track the fatal path of the disease.
Lovinah Igbani’s fiancé, a Texas inmate, is among the wary.
“He feels like he may become a victim to the science,” Igbani said.
Igbani has been trying to convince her fiancé to get the vaccine, but she said he goes back and forth. She faults the eroded relationships between prison medical staff and inmates and the rumor mill that can spread misinformation as quickly as the virus.
“In prison, there’s so much conversation about it right now, and so many of them are like, ‘Don’t do that, it’s just a trick, they’re trying to kill us,’” she said. “It’s not enough to try to just educate one person.”
Igbani and prisoner advocates have urged the prison agency to hold an education campaign to prelude the vaccination. She said they need to know they’re not going to be guinea pigs and that this vaccine has been tested.
“[My fiancé] heard my doctor here of 10 years saying he’s going to get it next weekend and encouraged me [to get it],” she said. “To me, that can be very reassuring.”
After she talked to him about the doctor’s appointment, her fiancé said he would get the shot when it was available. But two days later, he’d changed his mind again, after hearing too much fear from other prisoners inside.
A spokesperson for TDCJ said last week the prison’s communication department was creating a campaign to tout the vaccine as the best way to stop the virus. Several advocates have suggested the prison’s already existing peer education program, where inmates are given the tools and knowledge to inform and engage with other prisoners on issues like sexual assault reporting and Hepatitis C.
“They cultivate a clear line of distrust between officers and staff and incarcerated individuals,” said Doug Smith, senior policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition who also worked as a peer educator when he was imprisoned in TDCJ. “Peer to peer is going to be critical … setting up, preparing peer educators to just do education about what the vaccine is.”
But just as experts say the skepticism of the vaccine is exaggerated in prison, so is the desperation for it. Many prisoners have been largely kept to their cells for months during outbreaks, they have been unable to see their friends and families in person since March and they have often been sickened themselves and witnessed the virus’ fatal impact first hand.
“There’s enough experience that a lot of people have to be really distrustful, but a lot of them have seen friends die,” Smith said.
Some experts are more worried about staff resistance to the vaccine. Deitch said questions remain on whether corrections officers will need to be vaccinated to be able to work with vulnerable populations of inmates. And units often become infected because of officers who bring the virus in, noted John Eason, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin and director of the university’s Justice Lab who is studying prison and community spread of the virus.
“We’re seeing a move from community, to staff, to prisoners and then back from prisoners to community,” he said.