Parchman prison. Jan. 15, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Eighty-nine percent of incarcerated people inside Mississippi’s three state-operated prisons are fully vaccinated, according to data obtained by Mississippi Today.

While Mississippi Department of Correction officials boast high vaccination rates in comparison to the state as a whole, some within these facilities say they were never informed about which vaccine they received and are still waiting on their second shot, leaving them vulnerable to infection because they are not fully protected.

“I only had one Pfizer shot,” Linda Ross, a woman in prison at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, told Mississippi Today. “I keep putting in medical, clinical forms and sick calls. I had one COVID shot about four months ago, and I haven’t had another one since then. And I don’t see one in sight yet.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the second dose of the Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines be administered within a month after the first dose. Women in the state’s largest prison, CMCF in Pearl, tell Mississippi Today they have only received the first dose five months ago, leaving them partially vaccinated and more vulnerable to a serious COVID-19 infection than fully vaccinated people.

According to data obtained by Mississippi Today, MSDH distributed over 31,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to MDOC and VitalCore, MDOC’s contracted healthcare provider,  between Jan. 30 and Aug. 11.

MDOC Assistant Deputy Commissioner Leo Honeycutt said as of Aug. 26, 90% of the population at the Mississippi State Penitentiary was fully vaccinated and 93% received at least one dose. In the South Mississippi Correctional Institution, 82% were fully vaccinated and 93% received at least one dose. 

He said 99% of incarcerated people at CMCF are fully vaccinated. It is at CMCF where incarcerated women say they are still waiting to receive the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but MDOC said in a statement it will vaccinate any incarcerated person who asks for a shot.

“The second dose has been administered to the overwhelming majority of inmates. MDOC stands ready to administer the second dose of the vaccine to any additional inmate that requests it,” Honeycutt told Mississippi Today.

However, Ross said she’s put in multiple requests to receive the second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to no avail. She said her zone was under quarantine from the end of August until early September because someone in the neighboring zone tested positive for COVID-19.

“I have underlying medical conditions. I have (hepatitis) C, so I should’ve been one of the first ones on the list (to get the second shot),” Ross said.

Sherri Murray and another woman in prison at CMCF who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation also said they received one shot in March and haven’t been able to get the second shot since then. They said they’ve repeatedly asked prison officials about getting the second dose and were never told which vaccine, Pfizer BioNTech or Moderna, they originally received in March.

Six weeks after getting the first COVID-19 vaccine in March, Murray had a shingles infection and had to go to the prison clinic, she told Mississippi Today. Murray said when she asked the doctor about getting the second shot, the doctor responded by asking her which vaccine she received, which Murray said no one ever told her.

“I never got my second shot, and I have no idea what type I got,” Murray said.

The anonymous woman said she received the first COVID-19 shot in March, but she’s unsure if it was Moderna or Pfizer BioNTech. She said she was so busy thanking prison officials for administering the first vaccine that she forgot to ask which shot they were administering, and no one ever volunteered the information to them, she told Mississippi Today.

In mid-April, prison officials returned to administer the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccines, the anonymous woman said, but she, along with many other women, were called out of their zone for work that morning. When she returned to the zone in the evening, she said that’s when she learned that prison officials had administered the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We walked the whole yard chasing the nurses around trying to get them to give us shots. We went to the warden’s office and everything,” the woman said. “We tried to do everything within our power to get these shots...They placated us telling us that we were going to get our shots later.”

Despite these efforts, the woman said she has yet to receive a second COVID-19 shot. She said she has hepatitis C and is fearful of prison officials and correctional officers who could be unknowingly spreading the delta variant to the incarcerated population. In the meantime, she said she’s been trying to socially distance from everyone.

“I don’t want to be around anybody coming in from the free world,” the woman said. “I think they should have vaccine and mask mandates put in place for nursing homes and prisons. I mean, because these people are coming in to see about us…They come to work sick and everything. Some of them refuse to get vaccinated.”

Honeycutt, the MDOC assistant deputy commissioner, told Mississippi Today that department staff “continue to be encouraged to be fully vaccinated for the safety of all.”

“I’ve been here a long time. I don’t want to die in here because of neglect. My life is at risk,” the anonymous woman said.

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Brittany Brown was Mississippi Today’s Justice Reporter, covering the state’s justice system with an eye for racial justice and inequity. Brittany formerly served as Mississippi Today's inaugural Emerging Reporters Fellow.