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With high infection rates in Delaware prisons, who will receive the COVID-19 vaccine first?

Joy Ashford
Delaware News Journal

Delaware prisons, as part of phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, have begun doling out Moderna vaccines to a mixture of correctional officers and at-risk inmates. 

But amid high infection rates — 2 in 5 Delaware inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data from the Marshall Project — families and activists question whether many at-risk prisoners are being left behind in a vaccination effort that addresses only some and not others, all living in close proximity.

So far, correctional officers have been prioritized, with the state Department of Correction giving 623 doses of the vaccine to staff and contractors of all ages and 75 to inmates. The state is starting with inmates over 60 who also have preexisting health conditions like cancer and heart disease, according to Commissioner Claire DeMatteis.

Inmates under 60, regardless of health status, are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Statewide, there have been widespread issues with the vaccine rollout. Delaware has not received nearly enough vaccines to cover everyone who's eligible, and thousands of Delaware seniors are stuck on long waiting lists.

READ MOREWhy it's difficult to get the COVID-19 vaccine in Delaware even when you're eligible

Amid vaccine shortages, the Department of Correction said it has taken preemptive steps to ensure equitable vaccine distribution.

Starting in March, DeMatteis said their medical team began reviewing inmates' health records to identify older prisoners with serious underlying health conditions like asthma and hypertension.

The Department of Correction has also been working to counter skepticism about the vaccine's safety by posting informational flyers within housing units and in public places throughout the prisons. These flyers contain answers to common questions about the vaccine's safety, effectiveness, side effects and more.

Despite these efforts, some advocates, activists and families of inmates still have concerns about the prisons' distribution of vaccines. Some question the fact that approximately 90% of available vaccine doses have gone to prison staff and only 10% to at-risk inmates.

One of these is Kiandra Harris, whose fiancé is incarcerated in a Delaware prison.

“They need to find a way to vaccinate more inmates,” Harris said. Until all at-risk inmates are vaccinated, she added, “people are still dying.”

Harris’ brother died of COVID-19 in a Delaware prison this past October.

Zamarianne Bradley has a 31-year-old husband with asthma who is incarcerated, and she shared similar concerns.

“Young people with more health problems” should be prioritized, she said, especially those with auto-immune diseases that make them high-risk.

READ MORE: SCI inmate becomes 13th Department of Correction COVID-19 deat

Commissioner Claire DeMatteis receives the COVID vaccine

But others believe that prioritizing correctional officers above high-risk inmates is necessary.

“You can’t work from home if you’re a correctional officer, period,” DeMatteis said, calling the team of correctional officers she leads “heroes.” 

“And it’s important for them to get vaccinated so that they’re not bringing it into the facility,” she added.

Staff and correctional officers have been bringing COVID-19 into Delaware prisons for months, and inmate advocates like Dover attorney Stephen Hampton have raised larger concerns about the precautions they’ve been taking. 

READ MORE: Prisons, inmates and their families dispute Delaware's response to COVID-19 outbreak

“Not only are the correctional officers bringing it in, but then they're potentially exposing positive inmates to inmates who are not positive,” Hampton said.

He cited concerns that officers were moving inmates unnecessarily and that pretrial and presentence inmates were being housed with inmates who had been incarcerated for much longer, increasing the overall risk of transmission. 

Many sources contacted for this story echoed his concerns about the behavior of correctional officers.

Jeannette Patterson, whose brother was recently released and also tested positive for COVID-19, expressed concerns that the cells of known positive cases were not properly disinfected before a new person was housed there.

Deputy Commissioner Monroe Hudson receives the COVID vaccine

READ MORE: Concerns over COVID-19 protocols in Delaware prisons

Others had more general concerns about healthcare in state prisons.

One mother expressed the powerlessness she felt to help her 46-year old son, who suffered from kidney failure, contracted COVID-19 in prison, and continued to test positive for weeks.

As she described it, her son — who also leads a Bible study in the prison and is a “mentor” to many — was housed with a 55-year-old man who died in prison from COVID-19 last year.

She said he was “traumatized” by it and declined to give her name to Delaware Online/The News Journal out of fear it would jeopardize her son’s release scheduled for next month. 

“I don't know how much more my son can stand COVID,” she said. “I’m praying every day that God keeps him alive.”

Contact Joy Ashford at jashford@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @joy_ashford.