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After much debate, the Connecticut Department of Correction staff issued the first wave of vaccinations for eligible groups of staff and inmates on Feb. 1.

In accordance with phase 1b of the state’s vaccination plan, correctional staff and inmates over the age of 75 were the first eligible group. The next phase of vaccinations, for inmates ages 65 to 74, is expected to cover 208 inmates. The DOC has said it has enough vaccines to begin this week. All correctional officers in Connecticut’s phase 1b are now also eligible to receive the vaccine. 

The vaccinations begin after several months of outbreaks in state detention centers. Since the start of the outbreak, over 3,000 inmates and 1,000 correctional staff in the state have tested positive for the coronavirus. These conditions, a result of the inherent close quarters of prison spaces, have led to common critiques from inmate advocates and correctional officer unions alike. 

Inmate advocates like Stop Solitary Connecticut, The Connecticut Bail Fund and the ACLU-CT have called for a transparent plan to vaccinate all prisoners. At the same time, local chapters of the AFSCME labor union, which represents Connecticut correctional officers, have also urged the state to present a vaccination plan for its members. Both groups have expressed concern due to difficulties in social distancing within the correctional institutions’ confined spaces.

According to the DOC, the vaccination plan has thus far proceeded without any significant obstacles, with most eligible inmates receiving the vaccine and over 20 percent of all correctional staff. Still, vaccinating the majority of prisoners and staff remains a logistical challenge.

“Right now our focus is maintaining all of the [sanitation] protocols that we put in place in March and April and educating our staff and the inmate population,” DOC External Affairs Director Karen Martucci said in an interview with the News. “We know congregate settings are much more challenging … but typically when the community saw an uptick [in cases], we did. I anticipate we aren’t going to see perfect numbers.”

Though the DOC has yet to publish the number of staff and inmates who have been vaccinated online, Martucci said that 24 of the 27 inmates from the first eligible group have received the vaccine as of Tuesday. Three have refused it. About 1,200 correctional staff have also been vaccinated. 

Griffin Hospital staff have distributed the vaccine at all state facilities. The state plans to administer the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to inmates through medical staff at each of its correctional institutions. Staff, on the other hand, are able to set up appointments at outside clinics throughout the state.

Inmates and correctional officers fight state for vaccines

Lamont added prisons to the State’s Phase 1b of vaccine rollout in December, putting it in the same group as nursing homes.

For months, the ACLU-CT Smart Justice Campaign expressed its frustrations with what they called a lack of transparency on the DOC’s plans to distribute the vaccines, administer doses and prioritize high-risk inmates. In December, it sent a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont, urging him to recategorize state’s prisoners with other congregate living facilities. The categorization, the letter said, was a question of racial justice, as 70 percent of Connecticut inmates are Black and Latino.

On Jan. 28, the DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros officially announced the DOC’s plans for vaccinations. Still, the ACLU-CT interim Public Policy and Advocacy Director Claudine Fox told the News that her organization does not believe neither the governor’s office nor the DOC have released a “clear” distribution plan.

“The continuing issue is not making a clear commitment to valuing the lives and the bodies that are currently incarcerated,” Fox said. “They are under the care of the state; regardless of how or why they ended up in there, they are people and they deserve to be protected.

Correctional staff unions have similarly expressed their frustration with the lack of a clear plan from the State. 

“Is anybody at DOC listening?” AFSCME union official Mike Virgo asked aloud at a Jan. 27 press conference. 

The next day, Quiros released his announcement that DOC would start vaccinations the following Monday.

Vaccine skepticism slows plans

University of New Haven criminal justice professor Mike Lawlor said that the correction officers have a “legit point.” He told the News these officers run a similar risk of contracting the virus to that of frontline health care workers.

Similar to Martucci, Lawlor said that though there is a “logical progression” taking place in distributing the vaccine by phases, there will be challenges. One of these is convincing staff to take the vaccine. 

“It’s been reported that a large percentage of correctional officers do not want to get the vaccine, which seems crazy to me,” Lawlor said. “Some people view getting the vaccine versus not getting the vaccine as some political statement. Generally speaking, people who are front-line criminal justice types are in that skeptical group of ‘the whole thing was a hoax.’”

On Jan. 28, Quiros cited a survey circulated among the DOC’s correctional staff of roughly  5,400 employees. The department received 1,962 responses that expressed interest in taking the vaccine. It also collected 1,694 responses from employees that said they would not take the vaccine. The other 663 employees said they were undecided.

Skepticism of the vaccine extends to inmates as well. Local anti-police brutality activists and lawyers with the ACLU-CT both expressed concern that histories of medical mistreatment of the Black populations and experimentation on prisoners contribute to a distrust of the vaccine among some prisoners. 

“We can’t trust taking [the vaccine],” Stop Solitary organizer Barbara Fair said. “Even if they have it, everybody’s not going to want to take it because of the history we’ve had in America — testing us, doing experiments us.”

Though only three inmates have thus far refused to take the vaccine, there is no clear indication of how many from the later phases may follow as well. Still, Martucci says that she is optimistic of eventual DOC mass vaccinations and has not seen any disparities in vaccine skepticism between different racial groups at the DOC. 

Rolling out vaccine education

According to Martucci, facility nurses have played a large role in educating inmates on the vaccine as distribution begins. She told the News that many of the DOC’s medical staff have forged relationships of trust with inmates.  

“These are people that they lean on when they have problems,” Martucci said.

In addition to education through the nursing staff, the prisons have also frequently run informational videos about the COVID-19 vaccine on prison televisions and have posted CDC-made flyers. 

Former DOC Director Scott Semple confronted a pandemic during his time at the post: the 2009-10 H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic. He explained that though the DOC has a pandemic protocol, each outbreak requires a unique response. What worked for one, he said, does not necessarily work for the next. 

Semple echoed the concerns of many prison advocates, saying that while the DOC had sufficient personal protective equipment during his term, his biggest concern is the ability for prisoners to socially distance in compact spaces. He added that the early release of some inmates is a potential policy solution, if institutions take precautions to only release uninfected prisoners and provide them with adequate resources.

Since the onset of the virus, 19 inmates have died from COVID-19 complications statewide. Seventy others are currently hospitalized at the MacDougall Walker Correctional Institution Infirmary. According to Semple, it is important for the public to understand that the care of inmates is the responsibility of the state. Prisoner deaths, he said, take an emotional toll on those in the institutions.

“It definitely has an impact on the correctional system, and I’m speaking about the staff as well as the incarcerated population,” Semple said. “They’re suffering the loss of that person just like everyone else. I truly believe [both staff and inmates] take it to heart anytime that they lose someone to this pandemic.”

There are 20 DOC facilities in the state of Connecticut.

Talat Aman | talat.aman@yale.edu