Opinion | How Vaccine Hesitancy Spread in My Prison
By John J. Lennon
John J. Lennon is a contributing editor for Esquire. He’s incarcerated in Sullivan Correctional Facility and will be eligible for parole in 2029.
“Everyone’s being offered the vaccine. It’s Johnson & Johnson — one and done,” a bald administrator announced as he walked through the block. “It’s not mandatory! The officer is coming around with a list. Let him know — yes or no!”
It was early April at Sullivan Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison in the Catskills where I am incarcerated. In late March, a judge ruled that New York needed to offer vaccines to all prisoners. But even when we became eligible, many were not exactly eager to get the vaccine.
I’ve been locked up nearly 20 years, and I became a journalist in the joint. This past year, I’ve watched waves of Covid-19 hit the prisons I was in, first Sing Sing in Westchester, then Sullivan in the Catskills. I recently documented Sullivan’s lockdown saga in The Times Magazine. Now, I’m worried the corrections system will get the vaccine rollout wrong.
Distrust for the American government is almost palpable within the country’s prison walls. Many incarcerated people doubt the vaccine’s safety. Others question whether other substances will actually be shot into their arms. Administrators seldom build trusting relationships with prisoners. Now, with Covid-19 raising the stakes, that us-against-them mentality is putting all of us in danger.
Oddly, it’s many of the folks who work for the government, like the corrections officers in the cellblocks, who seem more distrusting of the vaccine than many of us. Recently, I asked 10 random corrections officers if they’d been vaccinated; only three said yes.
Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said he was not able to provide a percentage of staff who had been vaccinated because “the vaccine is not mandatory and staff are not required to report to D.O.C.C.S.” if they have signed up independently for the vaccine.
When a corrections officer came around to ask if I wanted the vaccine early last month, I said yes. Then I asked if he took it. He said no. A week later, federal health agencies called for a pause in use of the Johnson & Johnson so they could examine a rare blood-clotting disorder that emerged in six recipients; the pause has since been lifted. Though I knew I’d take it when it got cleared and became available, among my prison mates the pause on the one-shot vaccine heightened hesitancy even more.
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