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West Side Legal Group Launching Campaign To Inform Prisoners About Vaccines

"We know the more information individuals have ahead of time ... the more apt they are to make an informed choice about their health care," said Tanya Woods, executive director of the Westside Justice Center.

Stateville Correctional Center
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GARFIELD PARK — A network of legal groups is preparing a public information campaign to educate prisoners about coronavirus vaccines.

The information campaign is led by the Westside Justice Center, a community-focused legal organization in Garfield Park. The group will create materials such as pamphlets and videos with information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments that will be distributed through prisons, said Tanya Woods, executive director of the Westside Justice Center.

It will be designed to empower people who are incarcerated with the information they need to make a decision on whether to receive the shots, organizers said.

The state’s vaccination plan recently added state prison inmates and Cook County Jail detainees to a high-priority group set to be immunized just after health workers.

Advocates had pushed for people in prisons to be included in Phase 1B of vaccinations, saying the congregate setting puts them at higher risk for transmission. Vaccinating inmates as well as guards could hugely minimize community spread, advocates have said.

RELATED: People In Jails, Prisons Will Be Vaccinated In Next Phase, State Confirms After Advocates’ Push

“We know the more information individuals have ahead of time before they’re face to face with making that decision about whether or not they want to take the vaccine, the more apt they are to make an informed choice about their health care,” Woods said.

The center is developing the campaign with Illinois Access to Justice, a network of law groups co-facilitated by the Westside Justice Center that uses legal services, education and advocacy “to try to mitigate the consequences of mass incarceration and mass deportation,” Woods said.

Partners will help create the informational materials and will also use relationships with attorneys, clients and families of those incarcerated to make sure the information reaches everybody who needs it.

“We will have to be dogged in our pursuit of making sure they are not left behind in the rollout,” Woods said.

Jails and prisons have been the sites of some of the biggest outbreaks in the state, which advocates say is because social distancing is impossible while incarcerated.

About 120 detainees at Cook County Jail are currently positive for COVID-19, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office. Nine detainees and five staffers at the jail have died from the virus.

More than 11,000 inmates and staff members at state prisons have tested positive for coronavirus since outbreaks began in the spring, according to state records.

Groups pressuring health officials to take action acknowledged the state’s updated vaccination plan it as a major victory for the rights and wellbeing of prisoners and detainees. But to get enough inmates immunized to stop deadly outbreaks in the congregate facilities, they knew they’d have to overcome another hurdle: skepticism toward the vaccines and a distrust of the jails and prisons’ health systems.

The public health campaign will have to overcome deep-seated resentment held by inmates due to poor access to medical advice and health care while incarcerated, said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.

“There’s a lot of distrust of medical personnel in both the jails and prisons because of the years of bad care that’s been given,” Mills said.

Correctional facilities have a history of keeping inmates in the dark about everything, including their own medical care, Mills said.

“Things are never explained to people who are detained,” he said.

Since inmates face barriers to getting medical advice and have limited access to information, Woods said it is vital for trusted sources to assist in educating people who are incarcerated.

“There are a lot of questions out there, and imagine being behind a curtain that is soundproof and you can’t see through it. That’s what it’s like to be in prison and not have access to the most current information, except what you might see on TV in the common area,” Woods said.

Illinois Department of Corrections leaders have agreed to distribute educational materials on the vaccines prepared by the legal group when they are available, Woods said. A spokesperson for the department did not respond to requests for comment.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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