Thomas Chambers doesn’t want to die in prison.
He’s right now serving the last 19 months of a 2018 prison sentence for robbery, and until a year ago, the 55-year-old inmate didn’t consider his life might end in the Marion Correctional Institute in Ocala. But paired with his Type 2 diabetes, the increased vulnerability to the worst outcomes from COVID-19 has him worried.
Even as the number of available vaccines increases, Florida inmates are unsure if and when they will have the opportunity to be vaccinated. Chambers said all at-risk individuals should be prioritized for the vaccine whether they’re in prison or the free world. That’s a pipe dream for now, according to information from prison officials and activists.
The lack of clarity about when he and tens of thousands of other inmates might get vaccinated is as true at the state level as it is in Florida county jails. None of the sheriff’s offices contacted for this story — in Alachua, Marion, Bradford, Union, Putnam and Levy counties — responded to calls requesting information about when, if ever, its inmates would receive a vaccination.
Florida Governor: Seniors First, Not Drug Addicts
Gov. Ron DeSantis, while speaking in The Villages earlier this month about the state’s growing supply of vaccines, disagreed with Chambers’ desire to see those incarcerated with comorbidities also receive a vaccine.
DeSantis explained that the federal government has implemented a pharmacy program that will distribute vaccines to the states on top of their usual allotment. With an increased supply of vaccines, the state’s seniors will be prioritized ahead of its inmates, despite growing death rates in the prison system.
“Some of these states are vaccinating prisoners instead of seniors,” DeSantis said. “They’re vaccinating drug addicts instead of seniors.”
Among those states is Oregon, where a federal judge ruled Feb. 2 that the state must offer inmates the opportunity to be vaccinated before seniors.
Desantis added: “Whose priorities are you looking out for? We’re looking out for our parents and grandparents here in Florida. There’s no way you’re going to get some prisoner a vaccine over a senior citizen.”
Public outcry across the country expressing this same sentiment paused the Pentagon’s plan to distribute vaccines to detainees at Guantanamo Bay last month, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Advocacy groups are concerned that the general public’s negative opinion of the incarcerated has delayed vaccine distribution behind bars in Florida, too.
“The notion that someone is not entitled to proper health care because they committed a crime is just wildly wrong,” said Denise Rock, executive director of Florida Cares Charity Corp. “They’re still human beings.”
“The Florida Department of Corrections is ready to vaccinate as soon as supplies become available to our agency,” Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch wrote in a statement.
No State Sentence Commutations In Florida
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, another prison reform group, asked DeSantis to commute the sentences of high-risk individuals in the prison system to prevent their exposure to the virus. This idea was rejected, said Greg Newburn, Florida policy director of the group.
“Legislative… and political leadership has done virtually nothing (to slow the virus spread in prisons),” he said, “and the result has been catastrophic.”
There have been at least 205 deaths from COVID-19 reported among state prisoners in Florida, according to the Marshall Project, a criminal justice journalism organization collecting data from prison systems across all 50 states. Results found inmates tested positive at 2.4 times the overall rate in Florida. An additional six deaths have been reported among prison staff.
Despite having half the population, Florida prisons have a COVID-19 death rate nearly twice that of federal prisons, Newburn said, which he attributed in part to the release of nearly 10,000 inmates under the Federal Bureau of Prisons to home confinement in an effort to balance public health and public safety.
Release dates for inmates under the Florida Department of Corrections, which houses about 84,000 inmates across 143 facilities statewide, have not been affected by the ongoing health emergency, the department said.
“We can’t find anybody who can be safely released instead of dying from this virus?” Newburn asked.
‘As Soon As Supplies Become Available’
Although the corrections department has seen over 17,000 inmates and 5,000 employees test positive for COVID-19 to date, it has not made known a plan to distribute the vaccine to inmates.
“The Florida Department of Corrections is ready to vaccinate as soon as supplies become available to our agency,” Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch wrote in a prepared statement. “We will ensure community level care is given to anyone under our care and custody who chooses to be vaccinated.”
Below: Read what a handful of Florida inmates and a prominent prison activist are saying about the perceptions of the COVID-19 vaccine behind bars.
James Baiardi, president of the corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, has also worked for weeks to obtain answers from the prison system. He met with department representatives earlier this month and asked how they were advocating for staff and inmates to receive the vaccine and who it would prioritize during distribution.
Representatives told Bairadi there is no plan in writing, and they are uncertain when corrections staff and inmates will have access to the vaccine.
“They’re saying it’s more or less beyond their control and are waiting to hear from the health department,” Baiardi said.
Before vaccines were released, the department sent a request for vaccines to the Florida Department of Health but has yet to receive approval.
“They should have had a plan by now,” Baiardi said. “Somebody has to be out there yelling ‘Help!’”
Bairadi said he has tried to be that somebody, offering the department his own ideas to get the vaccine into the prison system. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines must be administered within 6 hours of being removed from storage, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert. When people don’t show up for their vaccination appointments, Baiardi suggested requesting those vaccines be redistributed to corrections officers rather than being discarded.
The department would not confirm or deny whether this has already been done, nor would it characterize the idea as good or bad, Bairadi said.
A Move To Educate
Florida Cares, the prison reform group, has been pushing the corrections department to educate inmates as new information becomes available.
The department recently sent out a request form to incarcerated individuals to gauge how many inmates want the vaccine. However, it is doing little to give inmates the information they need to make an informed decision, said Rock, the Florida Cares advocate.
The department responded to this allegation by writing in an email that “medical staff is visiting each dormitory to answer questions and provide an overview of the vaccine, including benefits, potential side effects, as well as the process of scheduling and follow up, if applicable.”
It is unclear whether this process began before or after vaccine request forms began circulating through the department’s facilities.
Still, inmates are not getting the full picture, Rock said, and they tend not to trust information they’re receiving from staff about the vaccine.
“A good half the (prison) population wants the vaccine and want it now, and another portion is afraid they’re going to be used as guinea pigs,” she said. “Their access to news and information is limited.”
Darren Bines, 32, is among those who have opted out of the vaccine for this reason.
Bines, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, believes the vaccine is being distributed to inmates early on to spare the lives of people on the outside, he said.
“They think we are animals,” he said, “so test it out on us and see how many will die.”
Staff Awaits Vaccinations, Too
While some inmates are afraid of the vaccine, others fear what might happen if they can’t get it soon.
Chambers, the inmate at Marion Correctional, said he is anxiously awaiting immunization, despite having no information about it. He is more afraid of what the virus will do to him than the vaccine and said he’s worried state guards don’t take the virus risks seriously enough.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed corrections officers in Phase 1b of its vaccination program, right after front-line health care workers, to protect them.
These workers perform duties that must be done on-site and involve being in close proximity with inmates. Rock is pushing for the state to follow CDC guidelines and vaccinate staffers exposed to the prison population.
“Prisoners… are like little virgins,” she said. “They don’t have exposure to the outside world. Our corrections officers are their front-line workers.”
Vaccination isn’t yet a panacea: Infectious disease experts are unsure whether someone who has received the vaccine can transmit the virus to others, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Experts do anticipate that vaccines will be largely effective at controlling the spread of the virus if paired with other safety precautions. For this reason, it is still worth trying to stop the spread in the prison system by vaccinating prison staff now, Rock said, especially since the governor will not prioritize inmates.