How I Helped Fight Vaccine Misinformation While in Prison

One incarcerated author used skills from an HIV/AIDS group to push imprisoned people and prison guards to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Patrick Stephens helped teach other imprisoned people about the COVID-19 vaccine inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Acroterion via Wikimedia Commons

How I Helped Fight Vaccine Misinformation While in Prison

One incarcerated author used skills from an HIV/AIDS group to push imprisoned people and prison guards to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

It was in the last week of April 2020, about a month after the beginning of the prison shutdown—a time when COVID-19 tests were not widely available—that I knew something was wrong. I was extremely tired and slept all day. I had slight chills, no appetite, and felt a constant disorientation. At first I thought it might be the beginnings of the flu, but there was no fever, congestion, or sniffles. Within ten days I felt good enough to get out of bed and even get back to exercising. That is when I knew something was really wrong.

My workout partner and I secured a flat bench and lined up our weights to do dumbbell presses. I was so happy to get back to working out after being laid up for weeks, but my excitement turned to dismay when I could not get through the early warmup sets without becoming uncharacteristically tired. My workout partner kept giving me side glances that vacillated between curiosity and impatience. I had lost weight during those ten days and thought I possibly just needed some more time to build back the muscle, but my cardio workouts were also abysmal. I could barely jump rope for more than thirty seconds at a time before my heart was pounding out of my chest.

Like many prisons, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where I currently reside, has for years been awash in COVID-19 misinformation and general ignorance. As I kept struggling through the workout, my partner—just as unaware of COVID-19 as I was at the time—seemed to make increasingly judgmental faces at me. Back then, none of us really knew what the virus could do.

That weekend, even walking from the cellblock to the yard proved arduous, and I couldn’t walk laps in the yard without taking several breaks. I even had to stop to catch my breath three times returning from the yard to the cellblock. By this point, we had started hearing about the long-term effects of COVID-19, and I was growing concerned. For all I knew, my new condition was permanent, and I felt fear in a way that no flu I had ever encountered had inspired.

Fortunately, over the following months I was able to recover by continuing to exercise until my stamina returned. Unfortunately, my workout partner contracted COVID months later and realized firsthand what I had been going through during my recovery.

He spent the next eight days in the outside hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. When he finally returned to the housing unit, he could hardly talk and looked frail compared with his once-impressive powerlifting physique. For a time, walking made him tired and even limited exercise required enormous effort.

“Bro, I’m sorry,” he said to me in his raspy voice. “I had no idea.”

Inside Sing Sing, one unsubstantiated COVID-19 claim seems to feed the next until whole conspiracies are concocted and reinforced out of thin air. “COVID is harmless,” some people mutter. “The deaths are being exaggerated. The government is trying to scare us into taking an experimental vaccine to either control us by taking away our liberties or, in the more dastardly version, control population growth.”

Despite all the news reports and even knowing people who had had COVID-19, many who lived and worked in the prisons thought, and still think, that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu. That belief, along with fear driven by misinformation, has driven vaccine hesitancy in correctional facilities. As of January 24, only 53.2 percent of New York’s incarcerated population had received any vaccine at all, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

I already knew that uncertainty about the safety of the vaccine was a concern for incarcerated people and officers alike. As early as summer 2020, I had been asking the dozens of people who lived or worked on my gallery how they felt, and only a few were unequivocal about their intention to take the vaccine as soon as one was offered. The vast majority expressed fear driven by misinformation and a general distrust of what I would call our biomedical-industrial complex.

I heard valid concerns, such as: “How did drug companies make the vaccines so fast? People have gotten COVID-19 after taking them. Even worse, people have died after taking them.”

But I also heard clear misinformation that was also rampant outside prison walls. “It makes you sterile. It makes you magnetic. It messes with your DNA. The vaccine includes a micro-bomb that is timed to go off in exactly twenty years.”

This is some of the nonsense that was circulating within the prison, largely from a handful of officers who were extremely resistant to being vaccinated. And although some of the incarcerated men did not buy into conspiracies, what they heard made them hesitant.

These were some of the concerns I also heard expressed by elderly, incarcerated Black Men, a demographic at disproportionately high risk to Covid-19 and among the most likely to die if they didn’t take the vaccine

Understandably, this hesitancy was also grounded in a long history of abuse at the hands of the medical establishment. The mutilation of Black bodies in the name of medical research, the abject cruelty of the Tuskegee Study (in which U.S. medical authorities experimented on Black men by withholding syphilis treatment from them without their consent), the nation’s long history of forced sterilizations of people of color, and increased rates of infant mortality after the Edmonston-Zagreb measles vaccine was administered in an experimental study, have all served to breed mistrust. But the terrible irony is that the mistrust keeps Black people out of doctors’ offices despite higher rates of preexisting conditions and lower life-expectancies than whites. Historically, Black people could not trust the healthcare system and yet could not survive without it. The inaccessibility of quality healthcare was the real killer.

But Black people weren’t the only ones afraid of the vaccine. One officer, a white male, felt the vaccine was unnecessary since he had already contracted the virus and had a high concentration of antibodies circulating in his blood. “If COVID-19 is so dangerous,” he said, “how come there were fewer [total] deaths last year [2020] than the year before?” (Importantly, that statistic is not true.)

One could hope that these represented fleeting fears that would eventually give way as more people took the vaccine and were fine. In light of reports that even some frontline workers were reluctant to take the vaccine, it could not be taken for granted that incarcerated people or corrections staff would eventually come around. Wishful thinking was not enough. Bribing people with food was not enough either. There needed to be some outreach to address the predictable, quietly growing reluctance.

The only solution was to help confront the misinformation head-on and engage these disseminators of misinformation and conspiracies in conversation. I held conversations with some vaccine skeptics—the discussions were often tense as my peers dug into their positions. But myself and others relied on skills we learned as peer educators for a preexisting education network, the Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education (PACE) Program, to present people with facts instead of rumors.

At the height of the AIDS pandemic in prisons, incarcerated men and women sought out credible information about HIV/AIDS to combat the misinformation and stigmas that were killing them. The PACE program was created in 1989 and has since expanded to multiple New York state prisons. Trained incarcerated facilitators educate the general population through class presentations or one-on-one conversations on various topics including HIV/AIDS prevention, testing, and the immune system.

So as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in prisons, we would use our PACE training to tell others about vaccines. For me, these were all informal conversations I had with small groups of people. I would pull up diagrams on my tablet to explain how different vaccines worked and the data that existed on vaccine efficacy. I also used my microbiology book from college to show the history of vaccines and the standard immunization schedules in America.

We can’t tell what direct effect our efforts had, but our peer educators were encouraged by the results we noticed around the facility. Even some of the officers were moving toward vaccination before mandates were issued.

Empowering incarcerated people through programs, like PACE, that focus on preventive health measures is indispensable during a health crisis like COVID-19 and should be replicated in other prison systems. PACE facilitators are uniquely situated, due to their research into the immune system, vaccines, basic genetics, and pathogens, to provide reliable voices to their peers and critical feedback to prison administrators.

About a month ago I encountered some evidence that some of our efforts were bearing direct fruit.

“Stephens, I did it,” an officer said as she opened the gate leading to the waiting area and the main lobby of the prison. I had recently spent a lot of time with her trying to persuade her to get the “Fauci ouchie”—I used diagrams showing how the vaccines worked and answered any follow-up questions that she had. Explaining the difference between DNA and mRNA and explaining the way DNA functions to make proteins was key to assuring this particular officer that the vaccine could not affect reproduction.

“Did what?” I asked.

“You know, the vaccine.”

“Oh, good for you. How do you feel?”

“OK, but I had a slight headache after.”

“You forgot to take the two aspirin before you went to sleep,” I responded. It was the advice that my mother, a registered nurse for more than 50 years and someone who had personally administered the vaccine to hundreds, had offered me.

“Yeah, I forgot.”

I started to walk away.

“You know what your problem is?” I asked jokingly.

She looked at me curiously. “What?”

“You people in blue don’t listen.”

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