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Shortly before COVID-19 vaccinations began in January at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, officials held town hall meetings for inmates about the vaccines and put up informational posters around the facility.
Yet when vaccination time came, 212 of the nearly 550 inmates who were offered the shots refused to take them, according to federal prison officials, shining a light on prisoners’ skepticism of the vaccine that is permeating many correctional institutions in the country.
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, officials say.
Inmate advocates and researchers say prison systems need to do more to educate prisoners about the vaccines, as available data and surveys show that many inmates decline or express hesitancy about getting the shots. Efforts should include bringing in outside experts and trusted community members, especially people of color, not just passing out flyers and having talks by prison staff, they say.
“As a Black man, I ... think about the history of the medical racism and experimentation with Black and brown people in this country. That resonates with people who are incarcerated,” said John Hart, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice who studies prison conditions.
“They have to do a much better job of bringing in people who are more trustworthy, such as elders in the community or people of color who have a lot of credibility,” he said. “We won’t be able to get out of this pandemic without taking prison facilities very seriously and that includes correctional staff and incarcerated people.”
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