Incarcerated Person In Washington Calls For Prisoners To Receive Early Vaccine Consideration

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The Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas, had a COVID-19 outbreak in May of 2020 that impacted hundreds of inmates. (LM Otero/AP)
The Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas, had a COVID-19 outbreak in May of 2020 that impacted hundreds of inmates. (LM Otero/AP)

An incarcerated person in Washington state is calling for prisoners to get vaccinated early as COVID-19 rapidly spreads through prisons across the country.

In a recent editorial for The Washington Post, Christopher Blackwell decries what he calls “modest steps” by state officials to reduce prison populations in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. In Washington and other states, officials have ordered prisoners who were serving for non-violent crimes to be released early.

Blackwell is incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Complex, and serving a 45-year sentence for robbery and murder he committed in his 20s. He says the stigma surrounding prisoners is preventing them from being prioritized for vaccine distribution. Only a dozen states have prioritized prisoners in the first phases of distribution.

“Granted, all of us are here for a reason and some of us have caused grievous harm on individuals in the community, myself included, and I'm very accountable toward that,” Blackwell says. “But that does not mean that anybody is sentenced to die. That doesn't mean anybody should go through extreme suffering. They've been sentenced to have a loss of liberties, and that's all that should come with the sentence.”

Blackwell says there was “an extreme outbreak” in his unit around Christmas. A prisoner started showing symptoms of COVID-19 after medical staff in the unit failed to follow protocol outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, only 13 out of 170 prisoners in his unit have not tested positive, he says. Blackwell is now on lockdown, and he says his unit is not the only one that suffered.

“The rest of the unit has been taken off to medical isolation, which is solitary confinement, or the gym, which has been turned into a housing for prisoners who have tested positive, that were asymptomatic, and it’s housing probably close to around 100 prisoners, if not more,” he says.

Blackwell says some prison guards have openly spoken with prisoners about their frustrations around the outbreaks because they feel their lives have been put in danger, too.

Incarcerated people are almost four times more likely to contract the coronavirus and twice as likely to die from it. As of Jan. 5, there have nearly 330,000 cases in U.S. prisons and more than 2,000 deaths, the Marshall Project reported.

Blackwell is calling for prisoners to be vaccinated because it is “completely, virtually impossible to social distance” in prison, he says. In at least one section of the prison, people are still paired up and forced to share 6 by 10 foot cells.

In the beginning of the pandemic, prisoners even had a hard time getting masks, Blackwell says. Since his op-ed was published, they now have masks “on a regular basis.”

Here & Now reached out to the Monroe Correctional Complex for more information, but a spokesperson declined to comment.

Blackwell says no one in his prison has received the vaccine yet — and they need it now.

“It doesn't matter how many masks we get,” he says. “Guards have to come in from the outside. Not all guards even believe in social distancing or in the pandemic in general and COVID. So we need to have protection.”

Alexander Tuerk produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 14, 2021.


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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


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Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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