With the mass-rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines across the US, vaccination is being offered inside state prisons nationwide and have been for a number of months. Prison-systems alone have regularly account for double-digit percentages of many states’ new daily, weekly, and monthly infection rates. Initially, vaccination was offered to those who were elderly or who had pre-existing conditions (including myself, with lung and heart damage from my experience with the disease last year). Almost everyone eligible at this initial offering took it, with very few side-effects apart from discomfort for a day or so. Given the warp-speed of the production and distribution around the country, it was very soon offered to all prisoners in the state.

Over half refused.

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To get a better understanding of the decisions made both to take the vaccine (most commonly the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine) and of those who refused it, I sat down and talked to as many prisoners as I could to get the reasons behind their choices.

A main reason for refusing the vaccine was a lack of trust in the science behind it, especially given the expedited approval process. A lot of men expressed concerns about the effects the vaccine may have on them down the road. The chief concern, amongst many men, seemed to be related to sexual health (“I’m not trying to get this vaccine that barely got tested and end up impotent.”), as well as a concern that the vaccine may shorten life-expectancy.

Many of these prisoners expressed a willingness to consider receiving the vaccine in the future after more research was done and after being able to see what happens down the road with those who have received it.

One of the other largest reasons for refusing the vaccine was a lack of trust in the regulatory process and the vaccine manufacturers themselves. Many had a huge concern about the nature of the vaccine’s production, while others expressed a belief that the virus’s seriousness was overblown and that this was just an opportunity for “the corporations to make money off us.”

Most of these individuals reported that they will never consider a COVID-19 vaccine, with some reporting a willingness to fight back in some way against the state if receiving the vaccine was made mandatory.

When asked, almost all of these people stated that they regularly refused the flu-shot [most reported receiving, on follow-up questioning, a tetanus shot in the previous ten years, however].

“Man, I don’t know what’s in that vaccine… it could be anything. Do YOU know?” was an example of a regular response. (A choice retort yelled out from behind by the cellmate of the individual who gave this specific response, a former meth-addict: “Noooooo… but you’ll cook up some crystal-meth on a dirty spoon, bought through a mail-slot in the ‘hood and made in a moldy basement by a fat shirtless guy with chemicals he stole from a farm. You’ll shoot that into yourself, won’t ya?” This was followed by a glaring look by both of them)

Some reasons for declining appeared to be racially-influenced. A number of Black prisoners mentioned the history of the Tuskegee experiments and mentioned a refusal to be part of any more medical experimentation. A common belief stated only by white inmates is that the virus is no more serious than the flu, and that they’ve had the flu before and were just fine. An interesting similarity: some Black prisoners claimed their belief that young Black men cannot be harmed by the virus, and some white prisoners claimed that young white men cannot be harmed by the virus.

There were also some recurring fringe beliefs, that the vaccine actually contains a tracker, nanobots, or “mind-control” (over the shoulder of one of eight men who said something along these lines, another man piped in, “So what? You’re at rock bottom and in the joint. Some mind-control might make you more successful.”). Three prisoners reported “hearing” that the vaccine was actually a testosterone-blocker [1].

Finally, those who chose to get vaccinated generally trusted the safety of the vaccines. Among that initial group of 65 and older and those with preexisting conditions, almost everyone accepted the vaccination, stating they wanted to be protected (even as most already had previously had the virus) and were worried about health damage if they were to get the virus in the future.

With those vaccinated later, many mentioned that the vaccine seemed less harmful than actually getting the virus itself, wanting to be part of a step in a better direction, and wanting the prison and society as a whole to open back up. After talking to everyone, I noticed that many of those who chose to get vaccinated knew someone who had been seriously harmed or died from the virus, while most of those who didn’t receive the vaccine reported not knowing anyone seriously affected by it.

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I am no one special and no scientist, but I had COVID-19 and nearly died from it despite being 30 and in good shape without any health problems. I’ve had friends die from the virus. I was vaccinated months ago, to no ill effects apart from a few hours with a headache and some chills… which were nothing next to having the virus.

If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, I hope that you will please seriously consider doing so.

[1] [side-note: there is a hyper-masculine culture in prison, and it is extremely common to hear rumors that a perceived enemy is trying to deceptively feminize them. I’ve heard many statements about how prisoners are intentionally given feminine hormones in our kool-aid, or that the soy that makes up a large part of our state-issued diet is intentionally given us as a sort of estrogen-esque drug]

Chris Dankovich