Makeshift vaccination stations were erected on San Quentin’s West Block yard in late January to provide those 65 and older and other vulnerable prisoners COVID-19 vaccination shots. Medical and correctional staff were the first to receive the vaccinations earlier that month.
“It is important for everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” wrote Kathleen Allison, CDCR Secretary and J. Kelso, federal receiver, in a December joint memo to the incarcerated population. “Our goal is to keep everyone safe, and to control the spread so that we can safely reopen our prisons to in-person visiting, programming and normal movement.”
San Quentin suffered a major outbreak in June and by August more than 2,000 incarcerated people had tested positive for the coronavirus and 29 had died, including one correctional officer. The prison vaccine distribution and its short supply loom large in the minds of some San Quentin prisoners.
Getting the vaccine to us prisoners is moving too slow,” said Calvin Rogers, San Quentin resident. “We should be getting it right away along with them (staff and medical workers), not when they have determined who’s the most vulnerable. We are all vulnerable. Every incarcerated man and woman.”
Vaccinating the incarcerated has sparked nationwide debate. Some opponents argue that prisoners should not have priority over those who have not committed any crimes. Advocates argue that prisons are high-risk living facilities where several states had major outbreaks and deaths. They argue that not vaccinating prisoners could prolong the pandemic.
Prison medical facilities are receiving supplies of the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, and as of February 4, 21,780 incarcerated residents and 23,365 staff have been vaccinated, according to the COVID-19 Information page on the CDCR’s website.
There are roughly 90,000 prisoners currently incarcerated in CDCR. As of February 4, 200 prisoners have died from what appear to be COVID-19 symptoms and more than 35,000 have tested positive for the virus since March 2020, according to CDCR data and other news sources.
“I’m 79-years-old,” said Alex Lopez, SQ resident. “If the vaccine is here, I want to take it. I have my reservations about taking it, but I had the virus. I don’t want to catch it again.”
Vaccinations also took place at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton in late December. At least 65 prisoners and employees volunteered to receive the vaccine, reported the LA Times.
The Stockton facility houses approximately 2400 prisoners, mostly with special needs. As of February 11, 636 of them tested positive for COVID-19, according to the CDCR website.
The Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla (CCWF) and California Medical Facility at Vacaville, are also scheduled for vaccination for their employees and high-risk prisoners.
CCWF is undergoing its own outbreak, according to Pam Fadem, Fire Inside news editor, to SQ News. At least 771 women have tested positive for COVID-19 among the 2,000 incarcerated there.
“What a mess. It’s just like it was at San Quentin,” said Fadem. “CDCR was totally unprepared and not following its own policies and regulations. It’s a miracle no one has died, but people have been and still are sick.”
The number of positive cases has dropped, but the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) organization is still planning to hold rallies for the people inside CCWF.
California State Prison in Lancaster also has a high caseload of infections with more than 1500 prisoners and 590 staff testing positive for the virus, according to the LA Times.
Correctional officers at the prison are at risk because they are required to guard prisoners’ rooms that have been hospitalized, said Robert Davis, correctional union leader to the Times.
CDCR still requires everyone to wear their mask, practice distancing, and to wash their hands often, according to its memo.
After the initial vaccine shots for the correctional employees and high-risk prisoners, the second dose would be administered in the coming weeks. Overall. the nation is facing a vaccine shortage. Gov. Gavin Newsom expects additional vaccines for the state, but no information has been given for what would be allotted to the prison system, reported the LA Times.
As the pandemic reaches its one year mark, rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in prisons and jails continue to rise. But just like in society, people in prison are also skeptical about getting the vaccine.