Georgia, Mississippi Prisons Offer Inmates Cookies, Commissary Credit as COVID Vaccine Incentive

In Georgia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, prisoners are being offered cookies and commissary credit as incentives to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the Associated Press, prisoners in Mississippi have been offered a bag of "Famous Amos cookies" as an incentive to be inoculated for the virus. Similarly, 51-year-old Michael McCoy, an inmate at the Autry State Prison in Georgia told the Associated Press that they were offered a "warden's pack" which includes items such as cookies, chips and candy, if they received a COVID-19 vaccine.

"Instead of with confidence and trust, you're going to bribe them with cookies and chips?" McCoy said according to the Associated Press. "What does he think we are?"

Inmates in Pennsylvania were also offered commissary credit, which is used to purchase items in jail, as an incentive for receiving the vaccine.

The incentives offered to inmates comes as numerous states see low vaccination rates among those in prison. According to the Associated Press, as of March 30, approximately 700 prisoners in Georgia had been vaccinated which only reflects about 1.5 percent of the state's prison population.

COVID-19 Vaccine
A nurse shows off a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside of the Chatham County Health Department on December 15, 2020 in Savannah, Georgia. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp was on hand to witness initial administering of vaccines in the state Sean Rayford/Getty

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

This week, Florida expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines to all residents 16 and older. But across the state, more than 70,000 people still don't have access to the vaccine. Those men and women are Florida state prisoners.

More than half the country has opened up vaccine eligibility, vastly expanding the ability for most Americans to get the shots, whatever their age or medical conditions. But inside prisons, it's a different story: Prisoners, not free to seek out vaccines, still lack access on the whole.

Nationwide, less than 20% of state and federal prisoners have been vaccinated, according to data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. In some states, prisoners and advocates have resorted to lawsuits to get access. And even when they are eligible, they aren't receiving important education about the vaccine.

And it's not just the prisoners. Public health experts widely agree that people who live and work in correctional facilities face an increased risk of contracting and dying from the coronavirus. Since the pandemic first reached prisons in March 2020, about 3 in 10 prisoners have tested positive and 2,500 have died. Prisons are often overcrowded, with limited access to health care and protective gear, and populations inside are more likely to have preexisting medical conditions.

"This is about a public health strategy," said Jaimie Meyer, an associate professor of medicine and public health at Yale University. "If you want to see an end to the pandemic, you've got to vaccinate the people in the places where there are the largest clusters and the most cases."

Correction officials in Maine said they had just begun vaccinating "age-eligible residents," with 125 prisoners, about 7% of the prison population, immunized by the end of March.

In Tennessee, prisoners had to wait months before they could begin receiving the lifesaving dose after an influential state advisory group determined that inoculating them too early could result in a "public relations nightmare" and "lots of media inquiries." That decision came although some of the United States' largest coronavirus clusters were inside Tennessee's prisons, with hundreds of active cases in multiple facilities.

Tennessee's top health officials eventually announced in March that some in the prison population could get the vaccine if they qualified by age or had certain health conditions.

To date, about one-third of Tennessee prisoners have tested positive for the virus since the outbreak began to spread. More than 40 have died.

By April 5, more than 6,900 prisoners—out of roughly 19,400 in the state—had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Starting Monday, Tennessee began to allow all residents 16 and older to receive the vaccine, meaning the remaining state prisoners would be eligible.

In some states, prisoners and advocates have resorted to lawsuits to speed up the pace of vaccinations. In February, a federal judge ordered Oregon officials to offer the vaccine to all state prisoners, which the state says it has now done. Washington state prisoners filed a similar lawsuit in late March, demanding additional protection from correctional staff who refused the vaccine. Last week, a New York Supreme Court justice ruled that that state must vaccinate all people incarcerated in prisons and jails.

Texas vaccinated its first 600 prisoners only because of an accident. After a freezer problem at the Darrington Unit left unrefrigerated hundreds of doses meant for correctional officers, officials offered the vaccine first to staff and then to high-risk prisoners to avoid the doses going to waste.

Vaccine availability is not the only factor corrections officials must grapple with to get shots in arms. Carrie Shipp, whose 21-year-old son Matthew is incarcerated at Ruben M. Torres Unit in Texas, said her son decided not to get vaccinated out of fear and distrust of prison medical staff. Shipp's son encouraged her and her daughter to be vaccinated, but he does not want to receive the vaccine himself.

"It's not like he doesn't believe in science, he's just fearful of what they might do to him, what they might give him," Shipp said. "To have your child, someone you took care of, be afraid of something that would protect them. ... I will lose sleep over it."

On a brighter side, the four states that say they have offered the vaccine to every adult in their state prisons—Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia—have seen more prisoners take it, averaging about 70%. Meyer said that was a positive sign, but likely to be lower in many other states.

"In many prisons ... the annual uptake of a flu vaccine is around 30%," Meyer said. "Now you throw in that this is a newly developed technology that people may or may not have lots of information about, you have to anticipate that uptake might be as low as 30%."