With the majority of corrections officers declining the COVID-19 vaccine, incarcerated people are still at serious risk

Low rates of vaccine uptake among correctional staff make it clear that withholding the vaccine from people who are locked up -- or offering it only to a small fraction of the prison population -- is senseless.

by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer, April 22, 2021

Correctional staff in most states have been eligible for COVID-19 vaccination for months, prioritized ahead of many other groups because of the key role staff play in introducing the virus into prisons and jails and then bringing it back out to surrounding communities. Against the recommendations of medical experts, many states chose to vaccinate correctional staff before incarcerated people, often claiming that staff would serve as a barrier against the virus entering prisons and infecting people who are locked up. Now it’s becoming clearer than ever that this policy choice was a gigantic mistake: New data suggests that most prison staff have refused to be vaccinated, leaving vast numbers of incarcerated people — who have been denied the choice to protect themselves — at unnecessary risk.

We compiled data from the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, The Marshall Project/AP, and other sources,1 and calculated the current rate of staff immunizations in 36 states and the Bureau of Prisons. We found that across these jurisdictions, the median vaccination rate — i.e. the percentage of staff who had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose — was only 48%. The numbers are even more disturbing in states like Michigan and Alabama, where just over 10% of staff have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

A map showing that less than half of prison staff are vaccinated in most states Figure 1. Data compiled from the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, The Marshall Project, and several state-specific data sources (see footnote 1). See the appendix to this article for a table with details about all 37 prison systems for which we gathered data.

This data confirms what we’ve learned anecdotally over the past few months through local news reporting. For example:

These low rates of vaccine uptake among correctional staff make it clear that withholding the vaccine from people who are locked up — or offering it only to a small fraction of the prison population — is senseless. No policymaker in any state should assume there is a firewall of vaccinated staffers protecting incarcerated people from the coronavirus.

Especially as the U.S. experiences a potentially disastrous “fourth surge” of the pandemic, it remains urgently necessary to:

  • Offer the vaccine to all incarcerated people — now. As we’ve discussed before, incarcerated people are much more likely to contract and die from the coronavirus, because outbreaks behind bars are common and a disproportionate number of incarcerated people have chronic medical problems that make the virus more deadly. (In many of the states we researched, officials and journalists have noted that incarcerated populations have had much higher uptake rates than staff.)
  • Depopulate prisons and jails. The coronavirus thrives in dense environments, so releasing people is still the best way to stop outbreaks behind bars — and as long as staff and incarcerated people aren’t vaccinated, outbreaks are certain to continue. States should be considering the most medically vulnerable incarcerated people first, and not excluding people automatically based on whether they committed a violent crime (we’ve written at length about the perils of leaving behind whole categories of incarcerated people). Unfortunately, prison releases have been very sparse so far.

As the new data shows, it’s simply not true that “offering” the vaccine to correctional officers amounts to protecting incarcerated people or the public from the rapid spread of the virus in correctional facilities. What states must do is make the vaccine truly accessible to both corrections staff and people who are locked up, and immediately begin increasing prison releases through commutations, good time credits, and expansions of parole. As long as states ignore and neglect incarcerated people, there will be no end in sight to the pandemic in prisons and jails.

 

Update April 23, 2021: The percentage of North Carolina Dept. of Public Safety staff who had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of April 20, 2021 was erroneously reported in an earlier version of this article as 85%. That calculation was based on the number of correctional staff (7,774) as reported by The Marshall Project/AP, but the Dept. of Public Safety clarified that the staff vaccination counts include all DPS employees, not just correctional staff. All related calculations (e.g. the total reported in the appendix) have been updated as well to reflect the corrected data.

Update June 21, 2021: The percentage of Virginia Dept. of Corrections (DOC) staff who had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of April 20, 2021 was originally reported as 72%. That calculation was based on the number of correctional staff (8,895) as reported by The Marshall Project/AP, but the DOC clarified in an email that our denominator (the number of correctional staff) may not be correct, although they did not provide the correct number of staff. They did, however, report that as of June 4, 2021, only 57% of staff had received at least one dose of a vaccine. Without the details of the number of staff and number receiving a first dose, we are unable to update the other calculations in this analysis (e.g. the total reported in the appendix).

 
 

Footnotes

  1. Source notes: In addition to the UCLA and The Marshall Project/AP data sets, we sought staff vaccination data from state Department of Corrections websites, news articles, and in one case, the Covid Prison Project’s media-sourced data set. Our vaccination rate calculations are based on total staff numbers, most of which come from The Marshall Project/AP data set; other sources are noted in the appendix table. The types of employees included in the total staff counts vary by state, and those details were not always clear in the data set. Data from UCLA, The Marshall Project/AP, and state Department of Corrections websites were accessed on April 20, 2021.

    It’s important to note that states do not report vaccination data consistently, so we made every effort to avoid double-counting staff and overestimating vaccination rates. Specifically, we typically defined staff receiving “at least one dose” of a vaccine as those who were reported as “partially” vaccinated, or having “initiated” vaccination or “received first dose.” This is because many states record vaccinated staff members twice – once when a two-dose vaccine schedule is started and once when it’s completed; those receiving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine may be included in both categories as well (as a “first dose” and as “completed”). In states where the available data suggested a different definition, we have noted those differences in “notes/clarifications” in the appendix table.  ↩

Appendix

Prison system Number of staff who have received at least one dose Total number of staff Percentage of staff who have received at least one dose Source for staff vaccination counts Source for total staff count Notes/Clarifications
Alabama 824 6,259 13% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Arkansas 1,421 4,045 35% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
California 27,758 46,000 60% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Colorado 2,972 6,267 47% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Connecticut 2,697 6,170 44% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Delaware 1,268 2,530 50.1% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Idaho 567 1,999 28% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP In addition to the 224 staff vaccinated at the department, an additional 343 self-disclosed they received both doses from outside providers.
Illinois 4,272 11,781 36% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Indiana 2,730 6,000 46% The Marshall Project/AP (3/30/21) The Marshall Project/AP
Iowa 1,267 2,470 51% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Kansas 1,641 3,228 51% Kan. Dept. of Corrections (4/14/21) The Marshall Project/AP
Kentucky 2,150 4,288 50% Briefing by J. Michael Brown , secretary of the Governor’s executive cabinet (4/12/21) Lexington Herald Leader (3/23/21)
Louisiana 1,100 3,883 28% La. Dept. of Corrections as reported by The West Side Journal (4/3/21) La. Dept. of Corrections FY 21 Budget and Cost Data Summary We used the staff number from the DOC because the number of vaccinated employees was described as those “who work in Louisiana’s state prisons” (not all DOC employees).
Maine 802 1,131 71% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Maryland 4,011 8,039 49.9% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Massachusetts 3,116 4,679 67% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Michigan 1,300 11,963 11% Detroit Free Press (3/20/21) The Marshall Project/AP
Minnesota 2,442 3,700 66% Minn. Dept. of Corrections (4/19/21) Legislative Auditor report (Feb. 2020) Included in our calculation of the number of staff who received at least one dose are 1,091 who received the J&J vaccine, 743 who received a first dose from the MDOC, 485 who “completed external [outside of the MDOC] vaccination process,” and 123 who “started external vaccination process.” Because the number that “started” an external vaccination process is much smaller than the number that have completed it, we assumed that the 123 who “started” were not also included in the “completed” group, as is the case in other data sets.
Mississippi 623 667 93% The Marshall Project/AP (3/30/21) Clarion Ledger (3/23/21; count is as of 2/28/21)
Missouri 3,000 11,000 27% COVID Prison Project – media data (3/30/21) The Marshall Project/AP While the source for the COVID Prison Project data is unavailable, its data seems to be corroborated by an April 6 MDOC Employee newsletter, which states, “Thousands of … team members have been vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.”
Nevada 1,230 2,800 44% Nev. Dept. of Corrections Facebook update (4/13/21) The Marshall Project/AP Specifically, the NDOC update reports “1,230 – first dose, 822- second dose.” Because it is unclear whether those who received second doses are also counted among those who have received a first dose, as is true in other data sets, we used the first dose counts to avoid double-counting.
New Hampshire 491 823 60% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
New Jersey 1,750 7,700 23% www.northjersey.com article (2/11/21) www.northjersey.com article (2/11/21)
New Mexico 1,640 1,893 87% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
New York 7,538 19,123 39% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
North Carolina 6,605 13,500 49% N.C. Dept. of Correction (4/20/21) N.C. Dept. of Public Safety, via email (4/23/21). This includes all DPS employees, not just correctional officers. We included both “partially” and “fully” vaccinated staff because the number of “fully” vaccinated staff was much greater than the number “partially” vaccinated, suggesting that unlike other data sources, the “fully” vaccinated staff are not double-counted in the NCDOC’s “partially” vaccinated staff counts.
Ohio 7,057 12,192 58% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Pennsylvania 3,094 15,073 21% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Rhode Island 927 1,339 69% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Tennessee 3,247 5,179 63% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Texas 11,893 36,073 33% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Vermont 467 1,001 47% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP (does not include health care workers, who are contractors).
Virginia 6,416 8,895 72% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP See update of June 21, 2021 in the text above. The VA DOC reported that as of June 4, 2021, only 57% of staff had received at least one dose of a vaccine; further details were not provided.
Washington 3,618 8,806 41% Wash. Dept. of Corrections (4/20/21) The Marshall Project/AP According to a Patch.com article (3/16/21), correctional staff were only eligible for vaccination starting March 17, which was much later than many other states.
West Virginia 1,914 3,687 52% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project W. Va. Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation update (4/9/21) Specifically, the DCR reports 1,914 first doses and 1,774 second doses administered to 3,687 employees (including contract staff). We used the count for first doses to avoid double-counting those who have received second doses, because it was unclear in the data whether these are mutually exclusive groups.
Wisconsin 4,100 10,204 40% Wisc. Dept. of Corrections as reported by the Wisconsin State Journal (4/3/21) Wisc. Dept. of Corrections Staffing and Vacancy Dashboard (includes all FTEs, accessed 4/14/21) The Marshall Project/AP report a much smaller DOC staff number (4,640), but it varied so dramatically from the WDOC number that we decided to use the count from the dashboard.
Federal 17,677 36,607 48% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Total (all jurisdictions with available data) 127,948 294,387 43%

Wanda Bertram is the Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact) Wendy Sawyer is the Prison Policy Initiative Research Director. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)



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