‘It’s disconcerting’: In southcentral Wisconsin jails, few inmates are vaccinated

Three county jails, including population centers Dane and Rock Counties, reported in 'spot checks' that a quarter or fewer of inmates were vaccinated

MADISON, Wis. — At the City-County Building in Madison, where two floors house some of Dane County’s highest security inmates, a row of narrow isolation cells stands mostly empty.

At least for today, when few inmates are falling sick with COVID-19, the absence is a good sign. Designed for discipline, throughout the pandemic they’ve also been used for quarantining the sick or exposed when other cells filled up, jail administrator Captain Kerry Porter said.

But with the delta variant sweeping through the nation, low (or nonexistent) rates of infection may not remain a constant. To Porter’s recollection, at its highest point when measured as a percentage of population, only a quarter of the county’s inmates have accepted a vaccine. When News 3 Investigates checked in on two separate Mondays in July, that rate fell at 19% and 22%, respectively.

“People are going in and out of the jail, and the average length of stay is different,” Porter said. “So somebody we may get vaccinated may get released from our custody shortly thereafter.”

The rate stands in stark contrast to Dane County’s general population first-dose vaccination rate of nearly 70%, according to the latest data from Public Health Madison Dane County.

Dane County isn’t alone with a lagging rate of vaccinated inmates. In Rock County, a day check-in last Friday showed a 23% vaccination rate of the current population, with a total of 120 vaccinated since they started administration. Earlier this month, they stopped quarantining people newly coming into the jail, according to the Janesville Gazette.

In Jefferson County, 25% of the population was vaccinated when News 3 checked in on July 21. But few county jails have that information in a readily-available public format; Sauk County didn’t have a system at all where they could easily find that number.

Education Efforts and Incentives

The Dane County jail first started vaccinating inmates in early April, when 85 out of the county’s 500+ jail population (down from pre-pandemic levels of 1,000 or more) accepted a vaccine. Since then, Porter says they’ve administered vaccines to 208 inmates. The jail offers vaccine clinics every couple weeks, and checks vaccination statuses for inmates entering the system. Lately, there’s been more people entering the system that have already been vaccinated. Still, the overall rate in the jail remains low.

“We’ve been doing our best to educate through the use of materials over our tablets,” Porter said. Plus, nursing staff are having those conversations with inmates as well.

It’s still a bit disconcerting, Linda Ketcham says. She’s the executive director of Just Dane (formerly the Madison-area Urban Ministry), which is dedicated to community outreach for people inside or leaving the criminal justice system. The organization, in partnership with the Wisconsin Council of Churches, just completed a 20-minute educational video that they’re collaborating with the Dane County jail to make available to inmates through the jail’s tablet system.

Just Dane is also about to kickstart an initiative in the community targeted for justice-involved individuals, offering gas or bus cards to people in exchange for accepting a vaccine.

Misinformation, mistrust fueling hesitancy

The reasons they encounter for opting out of vaccination are numerous, Ketcham said. Sometimes, an individual just needs more information from a trusted source to get questions answered. Other times, misinformation ranging from wild conspiracy theories to a misunderstanding of whether or not they personally need it can fuel the hesitancy.

“It’s really the full spectrum of concerns. And for some individuals, just a distrust historically of the medical field,” Ketcham explained. Additionally, she said, incarcerated populations often have only limited access to accurate information sources.

“Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system including the jail, it shouldn’t surprise us either,” she noted.

Jail populations are disproportionately people of color: in Dane County, less than 6% of the population is Black. But 2016 data of the county’s jail population revealed an average Black population of almost 43%.

Those racial disparities find their way into the county’s broader vaccination rates among its populations. According to the latest data from PHMDC, almost 37% of the county’s Black population had gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 64% of white.

‘Revolving door’ population means state prisoners far ahead of counties

Vaccination rates at state prisons have now soared across the Department of Corrections system to just shy of 70% of the inmate population–a figure helped along by a largely static population as well as incentives like returned visitation. (Now, visitors to some DOC facilities can get their own shot as well.)

“One expects these differences between vaccination rates within the prison system versus jails which are county-run; with prisons you have a more permanent population,” explained Ion Meyn, an assistant professor specializing in criminal justice and incarceration at the University of Wisconsin School of Law.

Besides a more static population, Meyn said other factors like a smorgasbord of policies from county to county as well as funding and budget constraints could be contributing to the difference.

His focus, however, is broader. Prison and jail populations are often filled with low-level criminals, with crimes he says are lifestyle or survivalist in nature who are put behind bars rather than get the mental or behavioral services they need.

Neither is it any secret the pandemic has unmasked the public health concerns associated with incarceration facilities, where efforts to keep inmates safe are often countered by the very nature of older buildings and communal housing.

“The failure to care for those individuals reveals a problem with our priorities,” Meyn said.

“This is a broader call for societal engagement in a public health way, and not in the way that we usually roll out our reactions to individuals who are in need.”