More Than 200 St. Clair County Jail Inmates Get COVID Vaccine, But Some Don’t Want It
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
BELLEVILLE — More than 200 detainees at the St. Clair County Jail have been vaccinated for COVID-19, say sheriff’s department officials.
Others remain wary of receiving the shot, not because of the vaccine, but because of the way they say the jail administration has handled the coronavirus pandemic thus far.
Inmate Shawn Lafollette said he believes the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine being administered at the jail is safe, “but the people giving it are not.”
“I just don’t trust them,” he said.
Sgt. James Hendricks, a spokesman for the jail, has maintained throughout the pandemic that staff has done all it can to make the facility as safe as possible for the inmates, including providing vaccinations as soon as they became eligible under the state’s plan.
Prisoners held by the Illinois Department of Corrections and in local jails became eligible for vaccination on Feb. 22. Inmates and residents of other congregate living facilities initially were scheduled in later eligibility groups, according to the Restore Illinois Plan, but were moved up through an executive order from Gov. J.B. Pritkzer.
The decision was driven, in part, by the virus’ spread throughout the state Department of Corrections, according to the Chicago Tribune.
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said as soon as the consent forms were made available to inmates, 164 of them signed up to get the shot. Vaccinations at the county jail began on March 18, and more than 200 had been administered as of April 7, Hendricks said.
Shots are scheduled whenever at least five inmates request them, he said.
“We can’t just call (the health department) for single individuals,” Watson said. “We do them in increments. … They have to thaw out the vaccines and there are five shots in a bottle. So you have to have at least five people wanting the vaccine so there is no waste.”
He said he is unaware of any complaints about side effects from the vaccine and believes more inmates will consent to getting the shots as they see others get theirs.
“I think we will probably get close to getting everybody vaccinated,” Watson said.
COVID spread unchecked, inmates say
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, more than 30 inmates, most of which have not been convicted of crimes and are being held as they await trial or sentencing, complained to the Belleville News-Democrat that chronic overcrowding at the jail and lax mitigation efforts by jail staff allowed the virus to spread virtually unchecked.
At least three inmates died after contracting COVID-19 in the jail.
Watson acknowledged overcrowding at the jail, which has averaged 493 detainees during the pandemic even though it’s designed to accommodate only 418 beds. The crowding makes social distancing difficult and quarantining infected or exposed inmates next to impossible.
He also cited safety concerns for the jail’s inability to provide face coverings to inmates before Jan. 13, nine months after the pandemic was declared.
Still, Watson and Hendricks outlined other specific measures staff had taken to stem the coronavirus’ spread. They included temperature checks and symptom screenings for anyone entering the jail, quarantining infected or exposed staff, group meetings and chapel services via Zoom instead of in-person, and twice daily sanitation with electrostatic sprayers similar to those used in hospitals.
The wearing of face coverings among staff and visitors was strictly enforced, Watson said.
“We’re doing a great job around here,” Watson told the News-Democrat for a Feb. 27 article. “‘We’re cleaning this place the right way and we’ve kept this COVID to a minimum.”
Inmates don’t trust jail staff
Cameron Belk, 51, who is awaiting trial on five counts of criminal sexual assault with a family member less than 18, has been vocal about what he described as inadequate measures to protect inmates for COVID. He said he got the vaccine because a pre-existing medical condition makes him especially susceptible to the virus.
After getting the shot, Belk said he experienced body aches, weakness, extreme fatigue, headaches, night sweats and chills, which the U.S. Centers of Disease Control have identified as common side effects of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
“I took it because the risk of me dying (from COVID) is high,” Belk said.
Some inmates have decided not to be vaccinated because, they say, the staff already has proven itself negligent in its care for the jail population.
One of those people, Lafollette, is among the 24 detainees listed as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against county officials that include St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson, Board Chairman Mark Kern, State’s Attorney Jim Gomric, multiple jail guards and contracted nurses. The suit alleges mistreatment by guards as well as a general disregard for inmate complaints, which contributed to the spread of COVID at the jail.
“We are currently suing them and it would be a conflict of interest (to take the shot),” said Lafollette, 51. “And two, they are inept, completely unresponsible. They don’t care for us. I’ve already seen two, probably three people almost die just in this block.”
Lafollette, who is awaiting trial on multiple charges of sexually assaulting a minor, said he already had COVID-19 in July 2020 and is counting on resulting antibodies to prevent him from getting it again. The CDC recommends those who had previously been infected to still get vaccinated since experts don’t know how long antibodies will provide protection.
Lafollette said he realizes he’s taking a gamble.
“But, it’s safer than using these people for anything,” Lafollette said.
“They tell people they do sanitizing daily and they said they sanitize the chapel that we have not been to in over a year. That’s not true, but they said this on a television interview and showed the chapel being misted,” he said, echoing many of the same complaints made by inmates to the News-Democrat for nearly a year. “We have trouble getting cleaning supplies to clean anything. We are supposed to get cleaning supplies twice a day.”
Carolyn P Smith is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.