Just over half of incarcerated people are vaccinated, despite being locked in COVID-19 epicenters

Most states did not prioritize incarcerated people in their vaccination plans. As a result, seven months since the first vaccines were distributed, just 55% of people in prison have been vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable to infection.

by Tiana Herring and Emily Widra, May 18, 2021

Throughout the pandemic, prisons have been a hotspot for COVID-19, with case rates in prisons between four to five times higher than in the general population. Despite being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, however, most states did not prioritize incarcerated people in their vaccination plans. As a result, seven months since the first vaccines were distributed, just 55% of people in prison have been vaccinated,1 leaving them vulnerable to infection.

Using data from the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, The Marshall Project/AP, and other state-specific sources,2 we calculated the current rate of vaccinations among incarcerated people in 48 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons.3 For our measure of vaccination, we counted anyone who had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of May 14, 2021.4 Our findings are disheartening:

  • In 17 state prison systems and the Bureau of Prisons, less than half of incarcerated people have received a vaccine.
  • Vaccination rates are the worst in Utah, South Carolina, and Alabama where 20% or less of the prison population has received the first dose of a vaccine.
  • And two states – Florida and Wyoming – have not released any vaccination information at all. Their lack of transparency makes it impossible to hold these Departments of Corrections accountable and ensure they are doing all they can to limit the spread of the virus.

As we recently reported, many states prioritized correctional staff for early vaccine access, under the misguided assumption that a fully-vaccinated staff would act as a preventative “barrier” between incarcerated people and the communities surrounding prisons. With many correctional staff refusing to be vaccinated, the median staff vaccination rate across the country was still just 48% at last count. To meaningfully protect people in prison, incarcerated people need to be vaccinated at much higher rates than we’re seeing thus far.

A map showing about half of people in state and federal prisons are vaccinated.
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 48 prison systems for which we gathered data.

Only ten states have vaccinated more than 70% of people incarcerated in their prison systems. Some of these states – Massachusetts, Oregon, and California – included incarcerated people in the early phases of their vaccination schedules. Had more states prioritized vaccinating people in prisons, vaccination rates would be higher across the board.

Vaccinating incarcerated people may be one of the only fast and effective mitigation strategies available to prevent the spread of the virus and save lives: The inability to socially distance in prisons combined with the higher rates of chronic health issues among incarcerated people has led to prison mortality rates two to three times higher than that of the general population.

Since vaccinations started in the U.S., there have been too many avoidable deaths. In Nevada, for example, one-third of COVID deaths in prisons occurred this year (after vaccines became available). Similarly, New Hampshire’s first COVID prison death didn’t occur until December 30, 2020, and there have since been two more deaths in 2021. In Oklahoma, incarcerated people became eligible to receive the vaccine late last year, but vaccinations did not start until March; and since January, at least 11 people may have died from COVID-19. Although the number of new cases each day has gone down in the United States since January, incarcerated people are still unprotected and dying, even when we have effective vaccines available.

The dark history of the prison medical system could be a huge barrier to vaccine uptake in prisons. Many incarcerated people are wary of the prison medical system, and for good reason: prison medical systems have long been notorious for unethical experimentation and inadequate medical care. According to the results of a survey published by The Marshall Project in February, more than half of incarcerated respondents did not believe the prison was acting in their best interest by making the vaccine available, and very few respondents believed medical staff would provide accurate information about the vaccine.

To address these concerns, public health experts have been clear: education is crucial to vaccine acceptance behind bars. There are educational resources designed specifically for COVID-19 vaccine education for people in prisons that can be used to address common questions and concerns. The reality is that vaccine education needs to be more than just handing out flyers and hanging up posters: to combat distrust in the prison system, prisons should bring in outside experts and trusted community members to discuss the vaccines with incarcerated people. Correctional staff – who have shown widespread reluctance to take the vaccine themselves – should not be relied up on to deliver accurate information about vaccines.

Nearly 397,000 people in prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 2020, and the virus will only continue to spread without widespread vaccinations behind bars. For more than a year, incarcerated people have dealt with devastating consequences of the virus, ranging from the inability to see their loved ones, to the unnecessary use of solitary confinement, to death. Lack of visitation and the use of solitary confinement, as well as discontinued programming and limited access to health care are all incredibly dangerous, in addition to the dangers of COVID-19. States need to start investing in and accelerating vaccine education and administration for people in prisons.

 
 

Appendix

Prison System Number of incarcerated people who have received at least one dose Total prison population Percentage of incarcerated people who have received at least one dose Source for vaccination counts in prisons Source for total prison population Notes/Clarifications
Alabama 3,508 17,454 20% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Alaska 3,137 4,523 69% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Arizona 27,654 37,396 74% COVID Prison Project The Marshall Project/AP
Arkansas 7,438 47% The Associated Press n/a We’ve opted to use the vaccination numbers reported by the Associated Press on 5/9/21 because the Arkansas Department of Corrections hasn’t provided The Marshall Project with updated data since 4/20/21. The article provides the number of doses and the percentage of people who have recieved the vaccine, but not the total population.
California 68,445 91,341 75% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Colorado 9,877 13,558 73% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Connecticut 4,600 9,053 51% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Delaware 2,020 4,677 43% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Federal 61,335 143,416 43% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Georgia 21,901 47,027 47% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Hawaii 1,380 4,200 33% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP does not include the number of people who have received the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine; we’ve added these vaccinations, however, for accuracy and consistency with the UCLA data.
Idaho 2,613 7,025 37% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Illinois 18,895 29,151 65% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP This number reflects the total number of completed vaccinations, not just the number of first doses.
Indiana 10,265 23,745 43% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Iowa 4,192 7,489 56% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/12/21. The Marshall Project/AP doesn’t include the number of people who have received the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine; we’ve added these vaccinations, however, for accuracy and consistency with the UCLA data.
Kansas 6,380 8,665 74% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Kentucky 6,602 69% The secretary of the Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive cabinet as reported by WDRB.com n/a This article from 4/12/21 reports the number of vaccines distributed and the percentage of people who have recevied the vaccine, but not the total number of incarcerated people.
Louisiana 8,877 14,134 63% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Maine 727 1,679 43% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Maryland 8,616 18,426 47% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Massachusetts 4,647 6,524 71% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Michigan 20,171 33,370 60% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Minnesota 4,379 7,315 60% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Mississippi 10,844 15,294 71% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/12/21.
Missouri 12,216 23,037 53% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Montana 1,584 3,686 43% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/5/21.
Nebraska 2,000 5,265 38% Lincoln Journal Star The Marshall Project/AP This article from 5/16 reports that almost 2,000 incarcerated people have been vaccinated.
Nevada 5,754 11,007 52% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
New Hampshire 1,409 2,107 67% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
New Jersey 8,551 12,800 67% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
New Mexico 2,920 5,817 50% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
New York 9,044 33,376 27% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP doesn’t include the number of people who have received the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine; we’ve added these vaccinations, however, for accuracy and consistency with the UCLA data.
North Carolina 16,327 29,321 56% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
North Dakota 1,100 1,211 91% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Ohio 23,443 43,665 54% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Oklahoma 11,801 21,665 54% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/6/21. This number reflects the total number of completed vaccinations, not just the number of first doses.
Oregon 9,156 12,753 72% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP First dose vaccine data was last updated on 4/6/21.
Pennsylvania 26,630 40,088 66% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Rhode Island 1,670 2,118 79% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 4/16/21. The Marshall Project/AP doesn’t include the number of people who have received the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine; we’ve added these vaccinations, however, for accuracy and consistency with the UCLA data.
South Carolina 2,442 15,700 16% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/4/21.
South Dakota 2,164 3,145 69% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Tennessee 13,279 19,510 68% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Texas 58,893 120,873 49% Email exchange with TDCJ on 5/14. The Marshall Project/AP This number reflects the total number of vaccines distributed, not just the first dose.
Utah 377 5,485 7% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/5/21.
Vermont 737 1,281 58% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 4/20/21.
Virginia 17,495 23,811 73% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Washington 6,636 14,660 45% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
West Virginia 1,345 3,987 34% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Wisconsin 11,191 19,783 57% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Total (all jurisdictions with available data) 566,667 1,021,613 55%

 
 

Footnotes

  1. It’s important to note that states do not report vaccination data consistently, so we made every effort to avoid double-counting people and overestimating vaccination rates. Specifically, we typically defined people 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 people 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.  ↩

  2. Source notes: In addition to the data from UCLA and The Marshall Project/AP, we sought vaccination data for people in prison from state Department of Corrections websites and news articles. Our vaccination rates are calculated based on prison populations reported in The Marshall Project/AP dataset. Data from UCLA, The Marshall Project/AP, and state Department of Corrections websites were accessed on May 17, 2021.  ↩

  3. Readers who want to conduct their own analysis can access data from previous weeks and months from both UCLA and The Marshall Project/AP.  ↩

  4. For Texas and the states with vaccinations counts from UCLA’s dataset, the data are as of May 14. For most states with vaccination counts from The Marshall Project/AP dataset, the data are as of May 11. In the appendix table, we noted the date of the data for states that have vaccination counts for only earlier than May 11.  ↩

Tiana Herring is a Research Associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact) Emily Widra is a Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)



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