Prisoners are highly skeptical of the COVID vaccines because of decades of mistreatment. It's up to the government to reassure them

  • Prisoners are poised to start receiving COVID vaccination.
  • But due to a history of abuse in the name of medicine, many of us are skeptical of the vaccine.
  • It’s the Department of Corrections’ job to educate us and reassure us of our safety.
  • Christopher Blackwell is a writer who is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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As the COVID-19 vaccines become available in America, I have argued that incarcerated people should be prioritized in the rollout. But while people in the free world are making choices about whether or not to be vaccinated, people in the prison where I live are worried they may not be able to refuse the vaccine when our turn comes. 

Highly skeptical of government agencies, some prisoners would rather risk catching COVID than trust the Department of Corrections (DOC) to shove a needle in their arm. Many people I live with find it difficult to trust a government that has repeatedly oppressed, abused, and misused us throughout our lives — from experiences with the broken foster care system to childhood incarceration and police abuse. There are also deeply embedded levels of generational trauma caused by harms suffered at the hands of the American government which give many communities justified concern.  

If the DOC wants us prisoners to feel safe taking vaccines, they’ve got a lot of work to do to gain our trust. 

Trust issues

I am a white man who was raised in a blended Native American family in a poor neighborhood that was overwhelmingly populated by Black and Brown people. Many of the people I live with in prison are also from impoverished Black and Brown communities. While I have decided I want to get the vaccine, I understand the concerns of prisoners who want the option to refuse.

Given the history of prisoners being bullied and forced to accept whatever the government and DOC thrusts upon them, I can see a reality in which prisoners are held down and forced to either receive the vaccine or be held in harsh conditions, like solitary confinement, until they comply. 

Although the idea that prisoners could get the vaccine at all seems controversial to some, I think the idea that many might have to take the vaccine when they don’t want to is problematic in its own way.

While talking with fellow prisoners, I have heard concerns from those who may want to opt out of the vaccination. One prisoner, who does not want his name published out of fear of retaliation, said, “If I say no to the vaccine, what happens? I’m dragged to solitary confinement to sit while DOC bullies me until I break and take whatever they wanna inject into my body. I mean they never just accept a no from us.” 

He already looked defeated and frustrated, knowing the outcome far too well after years of experience with a system that has never had his best interest at heart.

One Black prisoner, Randall Embry said, “Maybe they [DOC] will just inject me with COVID to study what the effects are.” He shrugged his shoulders while raising his eyebrows and said, “How do I know?” He went on to say, “Look at what the government did to my people in the Tuskegee study, and they were free citizens. If they can get away with doing that to free people, who will care what happens to Black prisoners behind bars. I know one thing, I am not willing to put my life on the line to find out. I’ll take my chances with catching COVID.”

And it isn’t just Black prisoners. Native American prisoners have suffered from similar traumatic experiences with the government.

When I asked Augustus Cooper, an enrolled member of the Okanagan Indian Band, how he felt about taking the vaccine, he was adamant he wouldn’t be allowing anything like that into his body.

 “I have an inherent distrust of the government, as do most Native peoples. I remember hearing stories from my elders about the unethical medical practices used on them during their time in government-run boarding schools. Like, young girls [who were] forced to undergo procedures like sterilization that prevented them from ever reproducing, along with other horror stories.”

Passionate as he spoke through his body movements and with a serious look in his eyes–there was no mistaking the lack of trust he had for the government.

Cooper went on to explain his own experience in prison. “I was denied Hep C treatment because my liver wasn’t damaged enough, like I needed to be almost dead before I was worth receiving treatment. Not to mention, it was seven months into this pandemic before the general population of prisoners were tested, and we still haven’t received the results.”

Distrust of the US government, paired with prisoners’ wariness of the DOC and a global pandemic, is the perfect storm of suspicion among a traumatized and oppressed population. Expecting prisoners to instantaneously forget a legacy of governmental abuse and trust a vaccine controlled by our oppressors seems like an impossible ask. Many understandably don’t think they can afford to trust the government.

As American citizens, prisoners have rights that must be protected, and prisoners have a right to choose what goes into their bodies—no exceptions. And yet, there is a real need for wide-spread vaccinations in prisons. There is a real need for wide-spread vaccinations in prisons, and yet, prisoners, as American citizens, have a right to choose what goes into their bodies. The question becomes: how can we reconcile this contradiction?

Read more: It’s time to set a new goal for the US vaccine rollout: over 2 million shots a day

Trust is earned, not given

A better approach would be for those in power to understand that trust is something that is earned over time and through repeated interactions. That is a key fact those in power do not yet seem to grasp, with regard to the vaccine or anything else. 

But instead of working with that knowledge and trying to effectively communicate with prisoners,  these officials seem to believe that starting every memo with the same statement—”the Washington State Department of Corrections takes very seriously the health and safety of the incarcerated individuals…”— will somehow convince us that despite all evidence to the contrary — including the fact that nearly 40% of us have or have had COVID the DOC is actually doing something to protect us. 

They seem to think these words will comfort sick prisoners—who are doubled up in solitary confinement cells sleeping on a floor mat next to a toilet—that those in charge have their best interest at heart. They seem to think these words mean anything to family members who haven’t heard from their incarcerated loved ones for a week and are left to wonder if they are dead.

Those in power must take concrete steps to earn the trust of incarcerated people. They can start by immediately halting the transfer of prisoners (which spreads the virus), complying with CDC guidelines, discontinuing the use of solitary confinement as medical isolation, giving people transparent information (including our test results when they test us), and providing adequate medical care. 

All of these things must not just be policy—which many of them already are—they must happen in practice. Finally, DOC must take accountability for the litany of missteps that have resulted in people getting sick and losing their lives. Only then can they begin to earn trust.

Further, people in power must provide prisoners with transparent information about the creation of the vaccine, as well as the deadly consequences if the majority of us do not accept the vaccine. Then, they should let us choose.

Many of us, myself included, have already caused irreparable harm to others and are now dedicated to never causing harm again. As prisoners we need to understand how refusing the vaccine can put other incarcerated people—who are five times more likely to catch the virus—and the surrounding community in jeopardy.

Personally, I think of the older prisoners it will affect — mentors who have helped me and other prisoners change our lives — along with those I know who have already fallen victim to the virus and have lost their lives and a chance to be vaccinated. 

I am not willing to risk the lives of others. I live everyday with remorse and the constant shame of knowing 17 years ago my selfish actions resulted in the loss of a life. I will never act so selfishly again. To me, it is important to protect the most vulnerable with nowhere to hide, those who must remain restricted and confined behind these steel gates and iron bars. In this situation, horrible as it is, this is all I have to give.

Christopher Blackwell is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, and is working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Marshall Project, BuzzFeed, Jewish Currents, and many other publications. He is serving a 45-year sentence.

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