RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Nearly 10,000 inmates so far in North Carolina’s prisons will have their sentences cut by five days as part of the state’s program to incentivize full COVID-19 vaccinations, according to figures obtained by CBS17.com.
John Bull, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety’s division of prisons, said 9,768 offenders have earned the reduction two weeks after getting their second dose of the vaccine, calling it an “ongoing process” with “more … in the pipeline.”
DPS began the incentive program in January when only about 6 percent of the state’s approximately 29,000 inmates had been vaccinated.
Most, but not all, inmates qualify for the 5-day sentence-shortening. For those exceptions — for whom such a reduction would drop the length of their term below the court-ordered sentencing minimum based on their offenses — they could earn $5 at the prison canteen. A total of 4,024 offenders have earned that incentive so far, Bull said.
Other incentives include four extra visits from family and friends, a free 10-minute phone call and an earlier return to an assigned job, program or educational activity when possible due to the pandemic, Bull said.
“I think that helped a little bit,” said Dr. Arthur Campbell, the division’s chief medical officer.
The state says more than 15,000 of the state’s nearly 29,000 inmates have been fully vaccinated, as of May 17, with more than 60 percent of those qualifying for the 5-day reduction. Another 1,320 offenders have been partially vaccinated.
“As long as the offender qualified based on … whatever the criteria were, which most of them did, quite honestly, then they were able to get those automatically once they got the vaccine,” Campbell said.
North Carolina ranks in the middle of the pack nationally with just under 60 percent of all inmates getting at least one shot. But that rate is still significantly higher than the rest of the population — with just 53.4 percent of adults receiving at least one dose.
“We still would love to have it higher,” Campbell said. “But you know, we’ll take everything we can get at this point.”
Resistance to the prison medical system is common, with a survey conducted by The Marshall Project earlier this year finding more than half of them saying they did not believe corrections officials were acting in their best interest by making the vaccine available to them.
Campbell says he and his staff worked to educate offenders about the vaccine, even posting photographs of the wardens getting shots to instill confidence.
“It’s really just engaging with them and making them feel comfortable and confident,” Campbell said. “We showed myself and the other medical staff being vaccinated, in some cases up front to show them that there really is … we’re really not just trying to force this on anybody, that we’re willing to do it, we believe in it. So I think that helped. I think it’s really just engaging with them as people and saying, ‘Look, this is absolutely in your best interest.’”
But why should people on the outside care about prison vaccination rates?
Correctional facilities — with people living in close quarters and little opportunity for social distancing — have been hotbeds of COVID-19 spread throughout the pandemic.
The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit group that opposes what it terms over-incarceration, says prisons have had infection rates of four to five times higher and death rates that are triple what they are on the outside.
And prisons aren’t bubbles, either: Guards and employees can bring the virus home and spread it to the community.
“I think this is important. And I think it really is overlooked, the amount of work that we’ve done here,” Campbell said.