When Jose Valentin learned he’d have the opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, he wrestled over whether or not to get it.
Valentin, who is incarcerated at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, said he feels lucky to be offered the potentially life-saving shot; he knows many people across the world still lack access to it. But after weighing the decision, he ultimately refused it.
“They don’t want us in society,” Valentin, 46, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery, wrote in an email, “so why do you want us healthy in here?”
He questions prison officials’ motives in doling out the vaccine — like many other incarcerated people, Valentin’s experience in the prison system has left him wary of the shot.
While the vaccine rollout continues in prisons and jails across the U.S., vaccine hesitancy has emerged as a hurdle to herd immunity. Misinformation and a lack of trust in the prison system among incarcerated people have fueled skepticism — and refusal — of the shot.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a survey of more than 5,000 incarcerated people in four states, including Florida, found that around 45% would reject the vaccine.
In Florida, one of the last states in the U.S. to vaccinate its prisoners, about 40% percent of the state’s nearly 80,000 incarcerated people indicated they want a vaccine. The Florida Department of Corrections declined to say what number of its incarcerated population has been vaccinated thus far, as the count is “rapidly evolving.”
According to Valentin, of the more than 1,200 men at Tomoka CI, only one-third opted to receive the first dose of the Moderna vaccine.
Some men at the prison worry the system is using them as guinea pigs or that they’ll receive low-quality doses because they’re incarcerated, Valentin said.
John Abbott, who is also imprisoned at Tomoka CI, was pleasantly surprised when he was told he’d have the chance to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. As an incarcerated person, he didn’t expect to be offered the shot anytime soon.
But like Valentin, Abbott, 48, decided not to get vaccinated for now. He said he’s certain he’s already had COVID-19, along with many other men at the facility — which, at one point last year, was one of Florida’s hardest-hit prisons by the pandemic. (The CDC recommends getting vaccinated, even if you’ve already had the virus).
“Without being able to fully research each vaccine or being able to choose the one I’d prefer, well it made my decision easier,” Abbott, who is serving a 10-year sentence for DUI manslaughter, wrote in an email.
Distrust of the vaccine rooted in medical racism has kept many Black Americans, including Javon Youmans, from getting vaccinated.
At Mayo Correctional Institution Annex, where Youmans is serving seven years for fleeing and eluding police, he said most men, including himself, have refused the vaccine. Many of them were suspicious of how quickly the vaccines were developed.
“I and others felt that we were being targeted for experimental treatment,” Youmans, 37, wrote in an email. “We have family that loves us and don’t want any long term effects.”
Youmans said men at Mayo CI were told the vaccine being offered to them was “not approved” and that they could still catch the virus once they get the shot. He questions the purpose of getting a vaccine that may or may not work.
“It makes absolutely no sense at all,” Youmans wrote.
COVID-19 vaccines aren’t mandatory for Florida prisoners or corrections employees. However, every incarcerated person is encouraged to get the shot “if indicated by vaccine guidance,” according to a corrections department spokesperson. If they refuse it but later change their mind, they can request an appointment to get it.
According to a department spokesperson, the department’s health services and medical staff have visited each dormitory in the state’s prisons to answer questions and provide information about the vaccine.
But Denise Rock, executive director of the prison advocacy group Florida Cares, said the department is only providing prisoners with written information about the vaccine after they receive it.
Given the lack of access incarcerated people have to outside information, prison officials should provide them written materials about the vaccine before they decide to get it or not, Rock said.
Rock also notes the problem with prison officials’ method of going dorm to dorm to educate prisoners about the vaccine: the dorms are home to more than 80 people listening to one staff member speak without a microphone.
“You can imagine how easy it is for the information to be lost, misunderstood or misinterpreted,” she wrote in an email.
Just as society has skeptics who require additional information and processing time before getting vaccinated, Rock said, so do prisons.
“They need to read materials in written form in their cells and have time to process the information,” she wrote. “I believe we would have a better response if each person had written materials before getting the vaccine.”