Some U.S. States Have Higher Vaccine Rates Inside Prisons That Outside.

Many states are slow to vaccinate incarcerated people despite the high risk of outbreaks in prisons and jails. But some are doing better with inmates than with the wider public.,


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Some U.S. states have higher vaccination rates inside prisons than outside.

A red tag on a cell door indicating an active Covid-19 case at Faribault Prison in Minnesota in January. Many U.S. jails and prisons have struggled with coronavirus outbreaks. Credit…Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune, via Associated Press

By Ann Hinga Klein

June 1, 2021, 5:01 a.m. ET

While most of the United States’ prison systems have struggled to vaccinate inmates, some, including California’s, have outperformed vaccination rates among the general public. And experts say their success may offer clues about how to persuade skeptical people outside correctional facilities to get vaccinated.

“Education is really key,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who leads the Covid Prison Project, a group that tracks coronavirus cases in correctional settings and compiled the data on vaccination rates. “Especially in a prison context, where there tends to be a lot of distrust of both health care staff and correctional staff, that education piece becomes even more important.”

At one California prison, inmates held a town-hall-style meeting in which medical experts answered questions about the safety of the vaccines. In Rhode Island, formerly incarcerated people were involved in helping develop a vaccination plan for inmates. In Kansas, inmates were given priority for vaccinations, and prisons provided vaccine information to inmates’ relatives and to the inmates themselves.

About 73 percent of inmates in California and Kansas prisons have received at least one Covid vaccine dose, according to the project. In North Dakota, another state that has had prison town-hall meetings, the rate is above 80 percent.

By contrast, North Dakota’s overall vaccination rate is 42 percent. California has administered at least one shot to 56 percent of residents, and Kansas 47 percent.

Incarcerated people are at a much greater risk from Covid-19 than the general public, but many say that they are wary both of the vaccines and of the prison medical staff members who administer them.

Dr. Brinkley-Rubinstein and Aaron Littman, a law professor who tracks cases with the Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that providing information from knowledgeable sources — and administering inoculations where people live — made it easier to gain consent.

“When people know exactly where to go and how to get access, then it can be really successful, even in very hard-hit, traditionally underserved people,” Dr. Brinkley-Rubinstein said.

Kevin Ring, a former inmate who is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that advocates for changes in sentencing laws, said that peer pressure also had an effect in some prisons.

“You could have no one taking it, but then if everyone’s taking it and then you’re in this small group of people — the peer pressure could work in a pro-vaccine way,” he said. “People want to return to unlimited movement throughout the prison, and they want their rec time back, and they want visits. And if they feel like there’s some weak links that are resisting, then I think there’s more pressure on those people.”

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