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Big Macs For The Vax: NY Prison Inmates Offered McDonald’s, Other Vaccine Incentives

Incarcerated individuals in New York state prisons could soon get the COVID-19 vaccine — with a cheeseburger and fries.

The Citizen obtained a memo sent by Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, detailing the latest round of vaccine incentives for incarcerated individuals. In the memo, Annucci announces the launch of a new incentive program that will be offered through Dec. 8.

According to the document, the incentives include “a paired down menu, such as pizza or McDonald’s, from a local vendor in your area, but must also include a non-pork item, which will be decided by the facility, after consulting with the Incarcerated Liaison Committee.” The spending limit is $10 per incarcerated individual who gets their first or second vaccine dose during the program.

Thomas Mailey, a DOCCS spokesperson, said Wednesday that the department asked incarcerated liaison committees in correctional facilities what incentives could help boost the vaccination rate among the prison population.

“The feedback received was that offering food items from local vendors, that is not accessible in the facility, but which the ILCs periodically purchase, would be an enticement,” he continued. “There are also other food-related incentives announced today. The maximum number of vaccinated incarcerated individuals ensures a safer work environment for staff, the incarcerated population and visitors to facilities.”

To encourage more vaccinations in correctional facilities, DOCCS is also offering a “special Christmas roast beef holiday meal” for prisons that increase their vaccination rates by 10% between Oct. 20 and Dec. 8.

Superintendents at each correctional facility will meet with the incarcerated liaison committee and housing unit representatives to review the memo. According to DOCCS, the memo will be posted in housing units, the general library and the law library.

In one week, the memo directs facilities to survey incarcerated individuals and determine who is interested in getting the vaccine. After receiving the total number of incarcerated individuals who want to be vaccinated, DOCCS will schedule clinics at each facility “within the upcoming weeks.” The department is offering the single-shot Johnson & Johnson and two-dose Moderna vaccines.

DOCCS has used incentives before to increase the vaccination rate. Over the summer, the department offered barbecues and food care packages to incarcerated individuals who got vaccinated.

The incentive programs have been criticized by the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, a union representing corrections officers in state prisons.

NYSCOPBA President Michael Powers said there is a disparity in how DOCCS treats incarcerated individuals and staff. He noted how his members are subjected to a “complicated testing mandate” — the state’s vaccine-or-test requirement. Employees must get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.

“Meanwhile, the state is using valuable resources to bring taxpayer-funded Happy Meals into facilities to incentivize inmates to get vaccinated. Where’s the fairness in that?” Powers said. “The state should treat everyone who resides inside the walls of the prison system equally and provide universal testing of staff, inmates, contractors and visitors at the facilities.”

The overall vaccination rate among incarcerated individuals lags behind the national and statewide averages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose and 57.1% are fully vaccinated. In New York, 73% of residents have at least one shot and 65.5% are fully vaccinated.

But in state prisons, nearly half of incarcerated individuals — 15,851, as of Oct. 18 — have received the vaccine, Mailey said. All incarcerated individuals have been offered the vaccine and educational videos providing information about the vaccine continue to be displayed in state prisons.

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