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I-Team: State program offers financial incentive for inmate vaccinations

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EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — As Pennsylvania moves forward with its COVID-19 vaccination rollout, questions are being raised about a state program that offers a financial incentive to inmates to get vaccinated.

State officials say it’s designed to get as many inmates as possible vaccinated, since prisons have been COVID-19 hotspots. But some taxpayers and lawmakers are asking if it is appropriate to offer financial incentives to anyone, namely inmates, to get the vaccine.

“I don’t think they should be given incentives of $25 dollars but I think they should get the vaccine,” said Greg Fessler of Dallas.

Eyewitness News heard pretty similar opinions from people in Luzerne County about the COVID vaccine inmate financial incentive program.

It was launched in late February as the commonwealth’s prisons became COVID hotspots. The state department of corrections is offering $25 to inmates who get fully vaccinated. They point out that the money comes from what’s called the inmate general welfare fund, not taxpayers money.

It is funded by court penalties, fines and even inmate families themselves. As of Friday, nearly 23,778 of the state’s 39,000 inmates took part in the COVID vaccine incentive program and $594,450 was paid out.

Source: PA Department of Corrections

The union that represents some 11,000 corrections officers is not happy about the effort. The president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association sent this statement to the I-Team:

“We believe the commonwealth should provide incentives to those who serve, not to those who are imprisoned.”

John Eckenrode
President PSCOA

State lawmakers like Senator John Yudichak also reacted to the program.

“It certainly sends the wrong message to the public that inmates have an opportunity to get freely vaccinated and that are provided free healthcare that are so important to making sure that those prisons are safe for inmates and for workers it’s unfortunate we have to incentivize good behavior in such a fashion,” Yudichak said.

But the spokesperson for the DOC says this is all about keeping everyone safe.

Everyone knows that prisons are breeding grounds for infectious diseases like COVID-19, largely because inmates live so close together. By any reasonable standard, incarcerated people should rank high on the priority list because when outbreaks occur inside prisons, they can endanger people on the outside, too. Prison staff members can carry the virus to their family members and ultimately the community.  Getting vaccinated will help protect staff and inmates from getting COVID-19.  There is a 90-95% efficacy in preventing the virus two weeks after getting the second dose (with Moderna) – so if everyone gets the vaccine and builds immunity, there will be less likelihood of exposure or transmission.  Additionally, once an inmate receives both doses, $25 will be added to the inmate’s account. This statewide inmate incentive comes from the Inmate General Welfare Fund which is not taxpayer funding from the General Fund appropriated by the General Assembly. The DOC has been vocal proponents of offering staff incentives for getting the vaccination as well (incentives for staff are different at each facility).  We are hopeful all staff will choose to be vaccinated to protect themselves, their coworkers and families and our inmates.

Maria A. Bivens | Press Secretary
PA Department of Corrections | PA Parole Board (supervision)

Janet Federici of Dallas says she understands that argument but still thinks that money should not be offered to get the vaccine.

“I don’t think it’s a great program. I think people have to take their health into their own hands, it’s not fair that prisoners are getting an incentive to get the vaccine,” Federici said.

Andy Mehalshick | Eyewitness News

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