By Charlie Deitch and Brittany Hailer
Beginning Monday, April 12, incarcerated individuals at the Allegheny County Jail will have the opportunity to be vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.
According to an internal email sent from Laura Williams, Deputy Warden for Healthcare Services, to employees and incarcerated persons, the jail in partnership with the Allegheny Health Network will begin offering the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
“The facility clinics are designated for the [incarcerated] population and any employees that remain interested in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine,” Williams wrote in the email. The exact times of the clinic have not yet been set, but Williams wrote: “This is very exciting news for our facility and we did not want to wait to make the notification.”
The shots will be distributed during two clinics next week on Monday and again on Wednesday, April 14. While vaccinations are not mandatory, Williams wrote in the email, “…vaccinations will allow our institution to evaluate and consider reducing restrictions in the future. It is very possible that high percentages of participation in vaccinations may allow our institution to restore some ‘normalcy’ faster than other institutions. It is possible that there are some barriers that presented during COVID-19 that may dissipate or disappear.”
One of the biggest restrictions faced by the incarcerated population is the time spent in lockdown. Very early in the pandemic, jail administrators decided to lock individuals down for 23 hours a day to stop the spread of the virus.
Vaccinating the jail’s incarcerated population has been a topic of discussion, sometimes heated, at county Jail Oversight Board Meetings since the beginning of the year. Several board members have asked about the jail’s vaccination plan and what was being done to educate the population about the vaccine. In March, Williams told the board: “Prior to vaccinating the inmate population, we will be providing education and information through the inmate tablets to assist in informing them on the risks and benefits of vaccines. Following that, the healthcare staff will be available to answer questions that they may have as well.” In January, Williams described these sessions as “town halls.”
According to some incarcerated people who spoke to the Current, as of yet, there have been no educational meetings. The written education information, which was recently sent to JOB members, was a copy of guidelines and facts from the Allegheny County Health Department.
Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that large numbers of incarcerated people across the country were refusing COVID vaccinations. According to the report: “In Massachusetts, more than 5,500 state and county prisoners have refused the vaccines, compared with nearly 7,800 who have received the first of two doses.”
Crowded conditions have made jails and prisons hotspots for the spread of COVID-19. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, the Allegheny County Jail has had 341 positive cases of COVID-19 with an infection rate of nearly 14 percent. In contrast, the state of Pennsylvania and Allegheny County have rates of nine percent or lower.
Besides educational programs, some Pennsylvania. prisons have been incentivizing the jail’s population to get more people vaccinated. According to a recent Spotlight Pa. report, nearly 80 percent of the prison population at SCI-Muncy and SCI-Laurel Highlands has been vaccinated. Aside from education, the state has also offered a $25 commissary credit to any who is vaccinated. In one Mississippi prison, the jail’s population was offered a small bag of cookies to take the vaccine. And when that doesn’t work, Mississippi officials are using punishment to coerce participation.
County Spokesperson Amie Downs has not responded to requests for comment regarding incentives for ACJ incarcerated persons to get the vaccine. She also did not respond to questions for the vaccine plan or education roll out at the jail.