COVID-19 vaccination rate in Louisiana prisons lags that of the general population

Officials say 80 percent of inmates offered the vaccine have taken it

In this file photo from July 2014, a group gets a tour of a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is also known as Angola. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

Louisiana’s COVID-19 vaccination rate of state prisoners is trailing that of the state’s general population, even though state officials have said most people who are incarcerated in state prisons are willing to get the vaccine and that inmates have had access to the treatment.

Louisiana had fully vaccinated 2,298 inmates as of March 28, according to information provided by the Department of Corrections at a legislative hearing this week. That’s 14.5 percent of the 15,834 inmates living in state prisons.

The prison system did not provide information at the legislative hearing about the vaccination rate of the additional 13,000 state inmates who are housed in local jails in Louisiana. It’s not clear to what extent these people — who make up close to half of Louisiana’s prison population — are being offered the vaccine.

But when just taking the state’s prison facilities into account, a smaller percentage of inmates have been vaccinated than that of Louisiana’s entire population. About 17 percent of Louisiana’s general population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Louisiana Department of Health

The state prison population’s vaccine rate lags that of Louisiana’s general population, even though almost the entire prison population is presumably eligible to receive the vaccine. People in state prisons are more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection than people in the general population, in large part because of their communal living conditions. 

A large segment of Louisiana’s general population — children and teenagers under the age of 16 — are prohibited from receiving the federally-approved vaccines on the market now. The prison population is nearly all adults, who are all eligible for the vaccine under Louisiana’s current rules. 

Additionally, people who are incarcerated in state prisons appear to be more willing to get the vaccine. Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said this week that 80 percent of inmates offered the vaccine have been willing to take it. The prison system is offering an incentive to inmates for vaccination. Any one who gets vaccinated automatically gets a $5 canteen credit

In Louisiana’s general population, a recent survey by LSU shows there is more vaccine hesitancy than prison officials have said exists among state inmates. Only 70 percent of residents across the state were open to being vaccinated, according to the university’s poll. 

About a third of the employees — around 1,100 people — who work in Louisiana’s state prisons have been fully vaccinated, according to information provided by the Department of Corrections this week.

LeBlanc told lawmakers 55 percent of correctional officers offered the vaccine have been willing to take it, but he expressed hope that willingness  will improve in the coming weeks.

Correctional officers and almost all those who are still incarcerated should be eligible to receive the vaccine right now, since Louisiana opened up vaccine eligibility to everyone over 16 this week. But the Department of Corrections said it’s working to make the vaccine available to every inmate. They have not procured enough vaccine doses to do so yet.

In all, LeBlanc said the Department of Corrections has seen 36 inmates and six staff members died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. This includes one prison warden and one prison medical director. Louisiana has the 12th highest COVID-19 death rate among all states when it comes to prison population, according to The Marshall Project.

The prison system will soon be facing extra scrutiny regarding all of the health care it delivers. U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick ruled this week that the state must improve its medical care at Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. Dick said the prison had inadequate equipment, staff and unsanitary conditions. She plans to force improvements with a court order.