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All Federal Inmates To Be Offered Vaccine By Mid-May, BOP Director Says

Michael Carvajal, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Bill Clark
CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images
Michael Carvajal, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

All federal prison inmates will have the opportunity to receive a vaccine by mid-May, according to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Michael Carvajal.

Vaccines have already been made available to all federal prison staff, he said, speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing Thursday.

More than 40,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons have received both doses of the vaccine, the bureau says, which is about a third of the people in BOP custody. Nearly 18,000 federal prison staff have been fully vaccinated.

About 66% of federal inmates have accepted invitations to receive the vaccine, Carvajal said. That number is slightly higher than the 61% of Americans who say they have already gotten a vaccine or are eager to get one, according to the latest poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Amid concerns about vaccine hesitancy among correctional officers, Carvajal said that just over half of BOP staff have accepted vaccine invitations. He added that figure does not account for staff who have sought vaccines elsewhere.

"We encourage the staff to take it, but also because it's not mandatory, we respect their right to make a choice," he said.

There are roughly 126,000 people currently incarcerated in BOP-run facilities, the lowest number in 20 years. The population was already shrinking prior to 2020, a trend hastened by the pandemic, when pressure mounted to release certain inmates to home confinement to decrease their risk of contracting COVID-19.

For incarcerated people, the pandemic has been a nightmare. Since March of last year, people in prisons and jails around the country have reported conditions that were terrifyingly conducive to the spread of the virus: large numbers of people in communal, indoor spaces; lack of basic PPE including masks and soap; symptomatic people left unisolated and without medical care.

Even as prisons and jails introduced basic safety measures like masks and testing, rates of infection and death among incarcerated people have persistently remained higher than that of the general population. According to The Marshall Project, nearly 400,000 incarcerated people have been infected with Covid-19, a rate of about 1 in 5. More than 2500 have died.

The BOP has faced criticism — and lawsuits — in the last year over its handling of the pandemic at federal facilities.

In the hearing Thursday, Carvajal defended the Bureau's work.

"We have a history of dealing with pandemics very well in the Bureau of Prisons, O.K.? COVID was different. It's extremely contagious. It happened very quickly," he said.

Those held in federal prisons are only about 10% of the people incarcerated in America. The large majority of inmates are held in state prisons and local jails.

For people in those facilities, vaccine access is much more varied. Though the CDC has recommended incarcerated people should be prioritized for the vaccine along with some other vulnerable groups, states are free to make their own priorities, and not all have chosen to prioritize inmates.

Massachusetts included incarcerated people in its first vaccine distribution phase and began vaccinating inmates and staff together in January. The Oregon Department of Corrections reported it had offered vaccines to all of the 13,200 people in its custody by March 10.

In Florida, by contrast, inmates in prisons just started to receive vaccines in early April. As of this week, about half of Florida counties surveyed still had not begun to vaccinate people held in county-run jails, according to an investigation by WFTS in Tampa.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.