Texas prisons have doled out thousands of COVID-19 vaccines — but none have gone to prisoners who get the virus at high rates

The Texas prison system has administered more than 5,500 doses of the coronavirus vaccine, but none have been given to inmates who qualify for the shot under the state’s current phase of the rollout.

And the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has repeatedly refused to provide information on when or how its older or medically vulnerable incarcerated population will be vaccinated.

More than 240 state inmates have died after contracting the coronavirus — about two of every 1,000 inmates — according to prison death reports analyzed by the Texas Justice Initiative. That’s a significantly higher percentage of the population compared to the rest of the state and many other prison systems in the country. Thirty-eight prison employees have also died, according to TDCJ.

Prisons are notorious incubators for illness, and repeated outbreaks have erupted throughout the state’s 99 prison units since the virus swept through the state last March. It is not abnormal for hundreds of inmates at any given time to test positive at a single prison, and experts say outbreaks inside prison walls often are caused by and lead to more cases in surrounding communities.

Of the 8,900 doses the state has reportedly allocated to 66 TDCJ lockups so far, the prisons’ health care partners had administered 5,562 doses by Monday, an agency spokesperson said. Officials first injected health care workers in the prisons, following guidance from the state health department. Then, an unspecified number of correctional staff working in COVID-infected areas were vaccinated.

The spokesperson declined to clarify if the agency gave doses only to older correctional staff or those with certain medical conditions, as the second phase of the state’s vaccination plan allows, or if the officers were being considered health care workers. Jeff Ormsby, the executive director of Texas prisons’ American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees branch, said correctional employees in hospital settings are starting to be vaccinated.

“They’re going to officers that are working in medical facilities or wings, then I was told they would go to COVID-restricted wings, then they’d start doing all the other staff,” Ormsby said.

Because of the disease-prone environment of prisons, inmate advocates in the state and throughout the country have urged officials to prioritize those who live and work in prisons to get the coronavirus vaccine quickly. Laurie Pherigo, a prison reentry advocate in Austin, said prisoners also often don’t get adequate medical care. She noted many of those who died in custody were serving only short sentences or were about to be released.

“You have more of a chance of getting it, and you have more of a chance of dying,” Pherigo said. “We’re sentencing people to death effectively for the most minor crimes on the block, and that’s not acceptable. That should never be acceptable.”

Still, she viewed the agency’s move to start vaccinating staff as a start. Ormsby said it was best to start with officers, for their safety and as a ripple effect.

“If we can prevent staff from bringing it in, then the inmates … are safer,” he said.

TDCJ has not provided any details on when or how it will vaccinate inmates, but spokesperson Jeremy Desel said the agency is listening very closely to state guidance. The Texas Department of State Health Services allocates the state’s vaccine doses and has set the parameters for who should be immunized while demand for the vaccine still far exceeds supply.

Texas is in Phases 1A and 1B of its vaccine rollout plan. Phase 1A includes front-line health care workers and nursing home residents. People 65 and older and those with certain chronic medical conditions qualify for the shot under Phase 1B.

Though prison officials so far have only immunized staff, a health department spokesperson told The Texas Tribune last month that the vaccines provided to TDCJ are for both inmates and staff who would qualify under the phases. Gov. Greg Abbott has previously dodged a question on whether inmates will be prioritized to get the vaccine, and his spokesperson did not respond to questions for this story.

Though TDCJ has been silent on the topic, advocates have noted that many inmates are still hesitant to get a coronavirus vaccine, especially one offered by the prison health care system. The wariness is similar to the distrust many people in the free world feel with the rapidly developed vaccine, exaggerated by the country’s history of medical experimentation on prisoners and a lack of information in lockups.

Desel said videos and posters have been put into the prisons to detail the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines.

“Doing the officers first could help in showing [inmates], ‘Hey, we need to do this,’” said Terra Tucker, the Texas state director at Alliance for Safety and Justice.

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