The Pennsylvania Prison Society issued the following to its subscribers and supporters this week addressing health issues in jails and prisons. The society advocates and works to ensure humane prison and jail conditions and advocate for sensible criminal justice policies. One of the Society’s most pressing concerns today is the rising COVID-19 infection rates in state prisons and jails. It parallels concerns local families have expressed to Franklin County Free Press about health issues at Franklin County Jail.
The omicron surge has accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails to the highest levels since last spring. Thousands of incarcerated people are yet again getting sick and more dying.
These perilous times call for prisons to improve efforts to protect residents and staff.
Since the world received news of the new variant after Thanksgiving, at least 11 people in custody in Pennsylvania prisons and jails have died from COVID-19. That’s almost three times as many as the four preceding months combined. At least 17 country jails have also been hit with large new outbreaks that often infect dozens of incarcerated people. New infections in state prisons have spiked to levels not seen since last March. Combined cases among incarcerated people and staff currently exceed 1,000.
“We need to do something new,” says Dexel University’s Joe Amon. “We need to be addressing this seriously.”
(Amin is clinical professor of community health and prevention at the university’s Dornsife School of Public Health.
Unequal access to COVID-19 boosters in Pennsylvania’s prisons and jails
Vaccinations continue to be one of the most important weapons against the disease; and the increased infectiousness of the omicron variant has made booster doses even more necessary. Amon says prisons should try to do more to follow the CDC’s recommendations favoring the use of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine for boosters, which have been shown to provide more protection than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Information about booster shots in prison is hard to come by because so few correctional facilities proactively share vaccinations data with the public. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which does not include booster doses in its online data dashboard, reported to the Prison Society this week that two-thirds of fully vaccinated people incarcerated in state prisons have received a booster shot. It is using the Moderna vaccine for boosters.
We have seen only a handful of reports about boosters in Pennsylvania county jails. Those facilities by and large fail transparency guidelines about the impact of COVID-19. When an outbreak infected 33 incarcerated people in Northampton County Prison this week, officials reported 78 out of the 635 people in custody have received a booster. Less than half of the population was fully vaccinated; and therefore eligible for a booster. We commend Northampton County for reporting thorough information about its mitigation work in the wake of this outbreak.
But the data from Northampton County is also consistent with the trend of low vaccination rates that has persisted in jails; where the high turnover of incarcerated people poses a particular challenge.
The struggle to inoculate correctional staff
State prisons are also still struggling to inoculate correctional staff; nearly half remain unvaccinated. Amon says prisons need to do more to increase these rates; including providing more information about vaccines and boosters and incentives for getting the shots. The DOC’s $25 cash incentive has helped achieve a nearly 90% vaccination rate among people incarcerated in state prisons. Uptake of the vaccine among corrections officers has gradually inched up since the state mandated that they get inoculated or be tested weekly and offered a day of paid time off as an added incentive. Individual facilities have also offered staff additional incentives.