Comment: Expired vaccine for Monroe prisoners a shot to trust

More than 200 received an expired dose. The incident has left prisoners’ trust shaken in the agency.

By Christopher Blackwell / For The Herald

“See, you can’t trust these f***ing people one bit!” A prisoner yelled from his open-barred cell.

Someone else yelled, “That’s exactly why I didn’t take the vaccine! I tried to tell you guys. These people don’t care about us. They’ll give us anything!”

As if prisoners needed another reason to distrust the Washington Department of Corrections, recently prisoners at the Monroe Correctional Complex found out more than 200 of us were given an expired lot of Moderna vaccine; it was five days past its expiration date.

This news sent prisoners into a frenzy. Many wanted to know if they had been one of the unlucky to receive the expired dose, and if they were, what did that mean. Was the vaccine still effective against covid-19 if it was expired? Was it effective, but less protective then it would have been if not expired? Questions were endless, and there were no answers to be found initially.

Prisoners were yelling so loud — one over the other — I could barely hear half of what was being said as the noise bounced off old brick walls and echoed throughout the 100-year-old prison. What I did know was this recent mistake will surely be the reason many of the people I’m incarcerated with will refuse the vaccine moving forward.

To make matters worse, prisoners and their loved ones found out about the troubling news from a local TV news station. Supposedly, the news station had been alerted to the grievous mistake by a state Department of Corrections press release. In the release, Corrections claimed the use of the expired vaccines was discovered during a quality assurance check, concerning prisoners as to why this important step was taken only after shots had been distributed. Shouldn’t this step have taken place before injecting humans with the substance.

Furthermore, many prisoners were confused as to why we had to find out from the news instead of Corrections itself. Transparency seems to be something the department has consistently struggled with since the pandemic began, though it was a struggle before as well. The only difference now is the pandemic has exposed Corrections, along with other systems across the country, for the devastating harms caused within the shadows of its walls.

“Why didn’t the DOC tell us this was going on? I mean they always talk about transparency, right? Throughout the whole pandemic, they have been lying to the public and saying they are being straight up with us and our people, but clearly that isn’t the case. And this isn’t the first time DOC has done this to us. When the first outbreak hit Monroe we found out by the local news. I’m just sayin’, this seems like a pattern to me, and I don’t trust um.” Jason, a Monroe prisoner, said.

Like Jason, prisoners were already extremely hesitant to get the vaccine before the recent news spread faster than even covid-19 ever could. Generally, prisoners don’t trust their abusive oppressor; they’ve never been given reason to. The recent news of this mistake only justified the distrust prisoners have and affirmed their fears that Corrections has never had our best interest at heart.

To be fair, Corrections had been — half-heartedly — working to encourage prisoners to take the vaccine. Printouts of frequently asked questions were taped to walls in living units in hope of answering prisoners’ questions regarding vaccines, and there was a video played on the prison’s movie channel explaining the vaccine and why it’s important to take. How much of these efforts were done to check boxes so Corrections could say it did its part, I couldn’t say, but the above is all they can be credited for.

Nevertheless, its efforts have accomplished little in swaying prisoners who had convinced themselves the agency couldn’t be trusted in administering a vaccine they were already skeptical of, decades of deep-seated mistrust couldn’t be overcome by mere propaganda.

In a statement, Corrections said it contacted the vaccine manufacturer, Moderna, which responded by May 5, reporting that the expired vaccine given 208 individuals was still effective against the virus and was not a risk to those who received it. However, the communication was vague as to how effective the protection it will offer actually is.

“If I received an expired vaccine, does that mean I need to take it again just to be safe?” One prisoner asked. A fair question, but one that will surely go unanswered.

This same concern was raised in Shelby County (Memphis, Tenn.) when WMC5 Action News reported on the possible use of expired vaccines there. The station interviewed Dr. Steve Threlkeld about the use of expired vaccines. Threlkeld said, “There isn’t likely to be any danger or side effects of getting a slightly expired vaccine. … The question is more how effective the vaccine will be.”

Given that there’s little, if any data, on the use of expired vaccines, the effects could be devastating, offering little to no protection from covid-19, or cause no harm at all while continuing to offer the same protection an unexpired dose would. The thing is, science simply doesn’t have the answer. So we really have no way to gauge the potential harm Corrections caused to those who received the expired does.

Furthermore, when Dr. Threlkeld says, “slightly expired,” does this mean one day, two, or five. When is the cut-off for using an expired vaccine. And what does the agency plan to do to protect the prisoners they gave expired vaccines to?

There is so much we don’t know, but this is what we do know: The negligence by the medical staff at Corrections in administering expired vaccines makes it clear they cannot be trusted in carrying out such a task. And it isn’t just a state agency that’s struggling to follow basic rules while administering the vaccine.

In Iowa, 77 prisoners at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison were left sick after medical staff there administered six times the recommended amount of the Pfizer vaccine. These acts of malpractice seem to continue to pop up around the country with corrections agencies and their medical staff. First the state struggled to protect prisoners from covid-19; refusing to take proper safety measures in keeping prisoners safe. And now they struggle in administering the vaccine. Still, they seem confused why prisoners and some of their own staff are refusing to take the vaccine in such high numbers.

What is taking place across the nation in prisons will have a detrimental effect on the United States reaching its desired goal of achieving herd immunity. Not only do we need citizens in the free world to take the vaccines to protect us all, but we also need the over 2 million prisoners to do so as well.

The negligence of unqualified medical staff in prisons could spread beyond our walls and cause far more damage to more than just those under their care, it could cost society as a whole. I fear the harm that has been caused in the aforementioned scenarios is irreversible. Changing the skeptical minds behind these walls simply isn’t going to happen, surely not after they botched something as simple, and important, as administering a shot.

Editor’s note: The state Department of Corrections confirmed to The Herald the agency had administered vaccine that was five days past its expiration date to 208 incarcerated individuals at the Monroe complex. Moderna confirmed to the state that the vaccine was still considered effective and would provide protection against covid-19. Corrections also said that those receiving the expired vaccine were notified. The department, the statement said, “was reviewing protocols, discussing training and has provided additional direction to vaccination teams to ensure this occurrence is not repeated.”

Christopher Blackwell is a writer incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Complex for convictions of murder and robbery. He is to be released in 2045. He has written previously for The Marshall Project, Buzzfeed News, The Washington Post and The Herald. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWBlackwell.

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