DPS: Only 35 percent of prison staff willing to get COVID-19 vaccine

After spending nearly 30 years at the women's prison in Raleigh, Pamela Humphrey was released in January.

But while she was inside, there was a COVID-19 outbreak.

"Horrendous it was one of the worst experiences of my life," said Humphrey. The 59-year-old tested positive, a close friend of hers in jail died.

"It was an older lady that we were attached to and it was very hard," said Humphrey. "There were a lot of things that could have been done to help prevent the outbreaks that we had."

The Department of Public Safety says soon it expects to transition 3,500 inmates out of its facilities and under the supervision of community corrections officers. The move is part of a legal settlement with civil rights groups.

The effort will reduce spread while voluntarily vaccinating remaining inmates and existing staff.

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An estimated 5,000 staffers have received their first dose, compared to more than 2,500 inmates.

As for the second shot, 1,200 employees are fully vaccinated, compared to approximately 170 inmates.

Officials said there is some hesitancy among staffers. The agency employs 13,592 corrections staff. In a recent survey, DPS found only 35 percent of employees want the vaccine.

The rate of voluntary vaccinations and interest is higher among prisoners 65 and older.

Perhaps that's because of the incentives DPS offers, like extra personal visits with loved ones and phone time, or five days knocked off their sentences for getting the vaccine.

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Civil rights leaders tell us the culture of distrust within the prison system will be an ongoing challenge for officials to overcome.

"It is compounded by the unwillingness to make the vaccine mandatory for staff," said Elizabeth Simpson, associate director for Emancipation NC. "I think it would be an important move."

DPS leaders said they expect vaccination rates of staff will improve overtime with consistent messages and educational videos that dispel myths and encourage the effectiveness of vaccinations.

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The prison system receives on average of 2,000 vaccine doses a week.

Forward Justice issued a statement regarding COVID vaccinations in NC prisons:

"We are pleased that NCDPS has taken the important and necessary step of devising a plan to vaccinate those who are incarcerated. Given the previous and current outbreaks in these facilities, and the ability for the virus to spread so rapidly in those conditions, vaccines will be key in protecting both those who are incarcerated and NCDPS staff.

We realize that there may be mistrust of vaccines, which is why it is imperative that DPS adequately educates their staff and individuals in their custody regarding the safety and science behind the Covid-19 vaccine. Providing accurate information alongside adequate monitoring and care to those who are covid positive will help foster trust between those in DPS custody and those who are providing care- creating better outcomes for staff, incarcerated people and their families, and the community at large.

Our top concern has always been the safety of those who are incarcerated and those working directly with them. We believe that the vaccine is a critically important element of mitigating the spread of covid-19 in these facilities, but we also know that reducing the prison population remains a key step in successfully protecting those who are incarcerated. By allowing for increased social distancing and a more manageable population size for medical staff, population reduction continues to be a necessary part of mitigating the spread of this deadly virus."
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