Nation Outside, Genesee County Sheriff’s Office launches vaccine program

FLINT — Inmates housed inside the Genesee County Jail now have access to the one-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, thanks to a partnership between the jail and criminal justice reform advocates.

Nation Outside, a nonprofit led by individuals working for criminal justice reform, has partnered with the Ambassador Program led by Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson to offer voluntary vaccine doses to inmates at the jail. Criminal justice reform candidates said that the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine will eliminate the needs for a follow-up appointment for people who may be released from jail soon after their first shot.

“Jails and prisons have been hotspots for the spread of the coronavirus throughout the COVID-19 pandemic through no fault of the people who live inside them,” said Johnell Allen-Bey, Nation Outside’s regional coordinator for Flint. “The people there don’t have the option of social distancing and they often aren’t given the means to sanitize their living areas or to wear masks as recommended. That’s why we’re so glad that Sheriff Chris Swanson and the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office were willing to work with us to offer vaccines to people inside the jail to anyone who wants it, so at least they won’t have to worry about catching this potentially fatal virus on top of the other concerns they face.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, criminal justice reform advocates around the state have called for greater measures to protect people who are incarcerated from the virus that causes COVID-19. To date, 139 people incarcerated in state prisons and four Michigan Department of Corrections workers have died of COVID- 19.

Although the CDC has issued extensive guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prison and jail settings, criminal justice reform advocates and people who are incarcerated have said that the state of Michigan and counties have fallen short of those guidelines in several ways throughout the crisis, such as not providing enough soap or hand sanitizer to keep hands clean, not providing enough masks and not thinning prison populations enough to allow people to socially distance.

While vaccines are being rolled out, COVID variants such as the UK variant— believed by some scientists 50 percent more contagious and 32 percent to 100 percent more lethal—are gaining hold in the state.

According to Nation Outside, Genesee County is one of the first counties in Michigan to create a vaccine program for its county jail. Nation Outside Jackson Coordinator Tony Gant said he hopes that other counties will follow the Genesee County Jail’s lead.

“There are no drawbacks to making this vaccine available to people in our county jails,” Gant said. “Whether they are serving a sentence or are just there because they couldn’t meet the demands of cash bail, these are people who will be coming home to our communities. It only makes sense to bring them home healthy. It protects their family and neighbors, and it protects the jail staff who work in close proximity to them on a daily basis. We’re grateful for the leadership of Sheriff Swanson, and we look forward to partnering with other counties who want to protect public health.” — B.G.