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North Carolina is the latest state to offer incentives—commissary credits, bonus visits and early release—to motivate inmates to receive vaccination shots.
Most inmates in North Carolina’s state prisons will be eligible for a sentence reduction that would shave five days off their remaining time if they opt to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, officials said Friday.
More than two-thirds of the state’s inmates qualify for the early release program. Prisoners who aren’t eligible for the sentence reduction credit would receive a $5 bonus to their canteen balance, officials said, and every inmate who receives the vaccine will also receive a free 10-minute phone call and four extra visitation sessions with friends or family members.
“We believe we’ve put together a high-impact package that is going to support the health of our offender population—and also the health of our staff and their families,” Todd Ishee, commissioner of the state's prisons, said on a media call Friday.
The incentives, based in part on recommendations from wardens, are designed to motivate inmates to receive the vaccine to help slow the spread of Covid-19 in the state’s correctional facilities. Nearly 9,100 inmates have tested positive for the virus, and 42 have died, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. As of Monday, there were 480 active cases and five hospitalized prisoners.
Covid-19 spreads quickly through prisons, where quarantining and social distancing are difficult, if not impossible. As of August, rates of the virus were nearly five times higher among incarcerated populations—and three times higher among correctional staff—than in the general population, according to data from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Math.
North Carolina is one of at least 17 states currently vaccinating prisoners. The state began administering doses to inmates two weeks ago, and officials hoped to administer the last of an initial round of 3,300 doses on Friday, with another 2,000 expected this week.
Shots are voluntary for prisoners, and a timeline for inoculating a majority of the population depends largely on the availability of the vaccine, said Dr. Arthur “Les” Campbell, medical director for the state’s prisons. Doing so benefits the health of staff and prisoners but also helps broader communities, where correctional officers and inmates’ families live and work, he said.
“We really see our mission as public health and public safety,” he said. “You cannot consider the prisons in a vacuum.”
At least two other states are offering similar incentives to inmates who opt to receive the vaccine. In Delaware, prisoners can receive free commissary items and video visits with friends and family, and in Virginia, they’re eligible for free email and phone credits along with care packages with snacks and other items.
“We want all staff and inmates who want the Covid-19 vaccine to get their inoculations as soon as possible,” Harold Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, said in a statement. “This effort is important to all in the VADOC community–our staff, inmates, and the community outside the walls.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.