Some Michigan prisoners reject vaccine. Expert advises how to overcome it

Barbara Bellinger
Special to The Detroit News

Inmate requests for vaccinations have slowed to a trickle in recent months despite posters in the halls and testimonials from Michigan sports figures and doctors playing nonstop on the prison television channel. 

“That’s not going to make a difference,” said Aaron Kinzel, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a criminal justice reform advocate.

“Inmates don’t like people telling them what to do,” said Kinzel, who served nearly 10 years in prison. 

Some Michigan prisoners are refusing to get vaccinated as COVID-19 shots have dwindled in recent months, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Until recently, Kinzel was also vaccine hesitant. He attributes that to the time he spent in prison. “It is psychologically embedded in inmates to not trust the system,” he said. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections began its COVID-19 vaccine program on April 8. With the help of the Michigan National Guard, it offered the vaccine to the entire prison population within two weeks.  

As of Sept. 17, about 66% of Michigan inmates were fully vaccinated, said Chris Gautz, the Michigan Department of Corrections public information officer. In comparison, 57% of Michigan residents are listed as fully vaccinated on the COVID-19 vaccine dashboard on the state website through Friday.

“It was easy to persuade the inmates as the roll-out happened during a surge of cases in Michigan,” Gautz said. Nowadays, requests for vaccinations occur primarily when the inmate finds out that a loved one has gotten sick or died from the virus, he said. 

“It triggers a wake-up call,” Gautz said. “They don’t want to go through what their loved ones did.”

Gautz blames lies and misinformation on cable news for vaccine hesitancy. Friends and family also feed inmates conspiracy theories, including that the vaccine has a microchip and changes your DNA, he said.

“Early on, our Catholic inmates thought it would be a sin to get the vaccine,” Gautz said. “The great messaging from the pope helped with that.” 

But some people are just anti-vaccination. “There’s 20-30% who, no matter what you say, are not getting the vaccine,” Gautz said. Vaccinations for tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and COVID-19 are not mandatory for incarcerated individuals. 

“If people’s work requires them to be vaccinated, they can leave and get another job. Inmates don’t have that option. They have the right to make their own health care decisions.”

The Department of Corrections needs to find other methods of encouraging the vaccine hesitant to get the vaccine, expert said. “Incentivize them,” Kinzel said.

The Associated Press recently reported that a jail in Benton County, Washington, was giving out packets of ramen soup to inmates who got the vaccine. In the first three weeks of the program, 90 inmates were vaccinated as a result.

Ramen soup might not make a difference, but a credit in the commissary would, Kinzel said. “They could buy stamps, envelopes, hygiene products and they wouldn’t feel forced into the vaccine," he said. 

But that would cost money, and Kinzel said it would need to apply to the already vaccinated or there would be pushback from them.

“Threats don’t work, and isolation and quarantine is not helping,” Kinzel said. “The inmates see it as just another means for the correctional system to control them.” 

Gautz said a mask mandate is a better solution to stopping COVID-19 outbreaks than vaccinating the entire population.

“The vaccination protects a person from getting sick. It does not prevent the spread (of the virus). Masks do that,” Gautz said. “The inmates must wear their masks at all times unless they are eating, sleeping, showering, etc.”

Kevin Harris, a formerly incarcerated individual and senior pastor at Detroit’s Nazarene Baptist Church, disagreed. “It cannot be one choice over the other. It has to be all approaches. An all hands on deck approach," Harris said.  

There used to be additional safety measures in place. “During the fall (2020) surge, we could space people further out in their housing cubes for social distancing,” Gautz said. The cubes typically house eight inmates. Last fall, the department was able to limit the cubes to four to five inmates.

The housing unit social distancing measure is no longer in place due to staffing shortages.

“We needed to combine housing units, and close off the ones that weren’t being used, so we would have adequate coverage by the Corrections officers,” Gautz said. 

At this point, if the department loses any more corrections officers, it would have difficulty overseeing all the prisoners, he said. 

Daniel Manville, a clinical professor of law and director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University, said the staffing shortage plays a part in the department not pushing the vaccination on their employees. “The Department of Corrections has always been scared to ask staff to do anything in fear that they’ll quit," Manville said.  

Although inmates must have a COVID-19 test before being paroled, they are released on their parole date whether they test positive or negative, unless they are released to a group setting such as a halfway house.

The lack of strong COVID-19 protocols during the parole process could have a potential negative impact on the public and potentially contribute to new hot spots and further spread of the virus, according to reporting by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the criminal justice system.

“We can’t hold prisoners past their parole date. If they refuse to allow the test or if they test negative, we notify the county health department where the parolee has listed their residence,” Gautz said. “We don’t think most prisoners are going to infect their families.” 

Barbara Bellinger writes for the Capital News Service.