It’s been more than a year since Virginia prisons locked down to try and stop the spread of COVID-19. The state has offered vaccine to every inmate, but restrictions are still in place and are unlikely to be lifted any time soon.
The state of Virginia won praise when it made vaccinating prisoners a priority – something it did on the advice of public health experts like Dr. Bill Petri, a professor of medicine at UVA.
“Prisons are a breeding ground for the virus with the opportunity for new variants to emerge as well as to leave the prisons through a correctional officer going home to his or her family,” explains Petri.
But this bold strategic decision has not delivered on a promise to end the threat of COVID behind bars. That’s because more than 30% of inmates have refused to be vaccinated. Tim Wright at the Green Rock Correctional Center and Tom Rose at River North say distrust is widespread.
“Because the vaccines were approved on emergency authorization, and they have not gone through full clinical trials, and they have side effects, particularly the younger guys didn’t see a reason to take a chance of injecting themselves with something unnecessary,” Wright says.
“A lot of people think we’re being guinea pigs,” explains Rose.
And Wright says inmates aren’t the only ones refusing vaccine.
“You had a large portion of the medical staff and a large portion of the officers that didn’t take any vaccines either,” he says.
Despite the fact that five staffers have died from COVID, more than 40% of people working in state prisons refused vaccine. The Department of Corrections declined our request for an interview on this subject, but it’s clearly concerned. It’s got a six-person team at the international consulting firm Deloitte working on ways to promote vaccination, and created a Wellness Channel on closed-circuit TV featuring medical experts and administrators like Director Harold Clark and his deputy David Robinson.
“While nationally coronavirus cases continue to rise, the number of active cases in the Virginia Department of Corrections has fallen. The role you play is vital in this fight, and I want to encourage you to keep your foot on the gas," Clark explains in a video."
"We’re all in this together,” Robinson says.
The state doesn’t actually know how great the risk of future outbreaks is. 56 prisoners have died from the virus, but about 9,000 got it and recovered. The CDC says they should still be vaccinated, but officials don’t know how many of those who refused vaccine might have natural immunity.
Under these circumstances, restrictions remain in place. Inmates have, for example, had no visits from their families for more than a year. At the Fluvanna Correctional Center, prisoner Jennifer Blake says that’s especially hard on parents.
“That isolation is definitely taking a toll, especially between the mothers and their children," Blake says. "The majority of women in here are mothers.”
At Green Rock, Tim Wright says the lack of outside contact is fueling frustration and anger.
“Everybody becomes a little bit more edgy and they have fights over the microwave and fights over phones," he explains. "And it’s these things bubbling over because they’ve been penned up and have nothing to do.”
Video visits are possible in some prisons for a price -- $8 for 20 minutes, but inmates say the quality is poor, and there are not enough set-ups to accommodate demand. It can also be tough to use the phones or kiosks to send e-mail. At River North, Tom Rose says gang members determine who can make a call.
“Because you have 96 people in this pod, and you know there’s just a lot of chaos and a lot of gang members in here," says Rose. "And, out of six phones, they may have four phones, so the weak do not get on the phone.”
In our next report inmates share more details of life in prison during a pandemic, with few programs, poor medical care, cold food and dangerous discipline.