The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Nearly 70 percent of detainees at the New Orleans jail have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, a spokesperson for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office said on Wednesday. That is a significant increase from two months ago, when just a quarter had received the vaccine. 

It also surpasses the rate of the city at large, where around 54 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, and the state, where about 40 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. 

Meanwhile, 65 percent of prisoners housed in Louisiana’s state run prisons have been fully vaccinated, according to Ken Pastorick, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Another four percent of prisoners in those facilities have gotten their first dose. He said the vaccine is available to anyone who wants it, but that 3,800 prisoners — close to the remaining 31 percent who have not already received the vaccine — have “waived” it. 

Those numbers are up from early April, when just 14 percent of prisoners in state facilities had been vaccinated, according to reporting from the Louisiana Illuminator.  

But prisoners in state facilities only represent only about half of people serving state sentences. The other half are housed in local jail facilities throughout the state. Pastorick said he did not have the number of those prisoners who were vaccinated, referring questions to the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association. A representative for the association was not immediately able to be reached. 

“The Louisiana Department of Health and the DOC continue to collaborate with the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association (LSA) and local facilities to continue vaccinating state prisoners incarcerated in local jails who would like to receive the vaccination,” Pastorick said. 

At the jail in New Orleans, 523 detainees have been fully vaccinated, spokesman Phil Stelly said. Another 28 have received a single dose of the Moderna vaccine. According to data available on the City Council’s website on Thursday, there are 772 people currently in custody at the jail.

The sheriff’s office has previously said that all employees working at the jail have been fully vaccinated. 

Stelly said that the jail has been canvassing detainees about whether or not they want to receive the vaccine and placing orders with the state accordingly. He suggested that the vaccine is available to any detainee who wants it, and that jail and medical staff were working to provide information to incarcerated individuals about the vaccine and its efficacy. 

“Our educational efforts involve a cadre of case managers, nurses, a nurse educator as well as the medical director, giving information about the benefits of vaccination and asking inmates about their willingness to take the vaccine,” he said.  “We work closely with the state and our inmate population to ensure the vaccine is available to every inmate who wants it.” 

According to Stelly, of the detainees who are fully vaccinated, 302 have received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, 215 have received Moderna, and 6 have gotten the Pfizer. Stelly said that the jail was currently in possession of second shot Moderna vaccine doses, and that more vaccine orders had been placed with the state, though he could not immediately provide details.

He also could not immediately say how many of the remaining detainees in the jail have indicated that they wanted the vaccine, noting that nurse-educators were regularly discussing the possibility with the jail population and that the number was “fluid.” 

Meanwhile, there are two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the jail, and one suspected case, Stelly said. 

Jails and prisons throughout the country have been hotbeds for coronavirus outbreaks due to the confined environment and the inability for prisoners to social distance. Throughout the pandemic the New Orleans jail has at various times struggled to contain the virus within the facility. At one point last summer, over 90 detainees had confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

Nationally, prisoners have been far more likely to contract the virus than the general public, and over 2,500 incarcerated people have died from the virus. 

But vaccination rates behind bars have been uneven. While some state prison systems have outpaced the general public in terms of getting prisoners vaccinated, they have more often lagged behind

Stelly, the spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, said jail staff was continuing to make efforts to encourage everyone at the facility to get a vaccine. 

“We’re working on the portion of the population that’s not vaccinated,” he said. “The benefits to everybody is pretty obvious.”

This story has been updated to include information from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections regarding vaccination rates at state prisons.

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...