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Prison guards, inmates lack vaccine access as COVID-19 rages at SCI Forest

Three Pa. corrections officers and six prisoners have died from the virus in the past week.

By Brett Sholtis

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

Emma Lee / WHYY

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

(Harrisburg) — Advocates for corrections officers and inmates are raising alarms about the lack of COVID-19 vaccines targeted to state prisons and county jails.

Their complaints center on a state policy change that put about 3.5 million people ahead of prison employees in line for a vaccine.

The recent change comes as COVID-19 rages at State Correctional Facility Forest and amid outbreaks at 23 other state facilities and at least one county jail, according to this Pennsylvania Prison Society map that combines state Department of Corrections data and news reports.

Prisons face many of the same risks for spreading the coronavirus as do nursing homes, but unlike health care workers and residents, prison guards and inmates have not gotten access to the vaccine.

FILE PHOTO: Corrections officers arrive for their shift at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on Jan. 13, 2017, in Camp Hill, Pa.

Marc Levy / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Corrections officers arrive for their shift at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on Jan. 13, 2017, in Camp Hill, Pa.

About 11,000 state correctional facility employees were waiting to get their shots as part of phase 1B of the state’s vaccine rollout, said Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association spokesperson John Eckenrode. They were told to expect that to happen in April.

However, when the Wolf Administration expanded who is eligible for the vaccine in phase 1A to include people over 65 as well as younger people with certain risk factors, that put millions of people in front of them in line, Eckenrode said.

“It makes absolutely no sense why we would be pushed to the back,” he said.

Because prison employees often are the ones bringing the virus into a facility, vaccinating guards would protect both staff and inmates, Eckenrode said.

Screen capture

Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association spokesman John Eckenrode talks via videochat app Zoom Jan. 27, 2021.

At the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for inmates, Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards said vaccinating guards helps people incarcerated in prison as well.

“There’s a reason why people in nursing homes, staff at nursing homes, are some of the first people to have access to the vaccine, and it should be the same or similar for people who work in prisons,” Shubik-Richards said.

Across Pennsylvania, more than 1,430 inmates and 565 employees are sick with the virus, state data show. Calling it “a desperate situation,” Shubik-Richards said six people in custody and three corrections staff died within the past week.

Online, obituaries for prison guards who recently died from COVID-19 are easy to find:

Corrections officer Gary Dean was diagnosed in December, according to an Allentown Morning Call report. After having a kidney removed and being placed on a ventilator, the 30-year-old died Jan. 21.

Lenward “Wood” McMillan worked at York County Prison for nearly 20 years before he died at age 51 after being exposed to another corrections officer who tested positive, the York Dispatch reports.

In Clearfield County, Kyle Dixon was 27 years old when he died “after a lengthy, hard-fought battle with COVID-19,” according to his obituary.

At least 97 inmates have died at state facilities in Pennsylvania, corrections data show. Their stories are harder to track: In one documented case, the family of 60-year-old Edward Ball was not notified for a month until after their loved one died from the virus while in prison, according to Spotlight PA.

Families of those incarcerated in Pennsylvania's state prison system say the Corrections Department is keeping them in the dark about their loved ones' coronavirus diagnoses and, in some cases, deaths.

Tim Tai / The Philadelphia Inquirer

Families of those incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s state prison system say the Corrections Department is keeping them in the dark about their loved ones’ coronavirus diagnoses and, in some cases, deaths.

The state health department noted that some prison guards will be able to get the vaccine now because they have qualifying medical conditions putting them at higher risk. However, the same cannot be said for people incarcerated in prison.

Because Pennsylvania has a high rate of life sentences, its prisons have a higher-than-average number of people who are 65 or older, Shubik-Richards said. Additionally, many people in prisons have health problems and other risk factors that would qualify them for the COVID-19 vaccine under phase 1A.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Maria Bivens confirmed that state prison inmates do not have access to the COVID-19 vaccine regardless of their age or health condition.

The Wolf Administration said no plans are in place to prioritize corrections officers.

“As you know, the amount of vaccine available right now is extremely limited,” said spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger. “The state’s vaccination plan is aligned with CDC guidelines and designed to get the limited amount of vaccine first to health care workers who keep us all safe and vulnerable, high-risk people to save lives.”

Brett Sholtis
Brett Sholtis

Brett Sholtis was a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health until early 2023. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.

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