It’s Time to End the Vax Rule for Prisoners

“It’s Time to End the Vax Rule for Prisoners” by Shakeil Price

Prisoners like me are barred from the intimate family visits that are a lifeline inside — all for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, a rule that has proved inconsistent and ineffective.

Another month has passed and the New Jersey State Prison continues to penalize incarcerated men who oppose the COVID-19 vaccine. Anyone who refuses to be injected with the vaccine is forbidden to receive a fully in-person “contact” visit. This restriction started in spring 2020 and continues with seemingly no end in sight.

I, and others like me, who have chosen to forego the vaccines for personal reservations and beliefs are being punished. For the past two years, I have been spitting saliva into a plastic tube and, out of approximately 100 COVID-19 tests, not a single one led to a positive result. Still, I am not permitted to have a contact visit.

There have been numerous campaigns enticing the prison population to accept the vaccine. To increase the number of fully vaccinated in its facilities, New Jersey Department of Corrections has resorted to bribery. Money, special food packages and other perks are being rewarded to those who have been vaccinated and received booster shots.

By contrast, visitation restrictions are placed on those who refuse to comply. Incarcerated men who are not vaccinated are only allowed to receive window visits, more commonly referred to as booth visits.

I have four children and three grandchildren. This restriction has hurt my ability to maintain stable family ties. As of today, I have yet to embrace the newest addition to my family, my grandson who was born in February 2022.

I also haven’t had a face-to-face conversation with my 6-year-old granddaughter in over two years. Prior to the pandemic, in the visit hall, she would run and jump into my arms eagerly and make her usual request: “Pop-Pop, make me touch the sky.”

She used to love it when I would toss her high up in the air and catch her. Giggling uncontrollably, she would say, “Again, again!” Recently, I spoke to her over the phone and she barely recognized my voice. 

After a couple of minutes of coaxing her to remember, she said, “Oh, you’re the man I used to color in the coloring book with.” It broke my heart that she didn’t remember our ritual that I cherished so deeply. Pop-Pop has been reduced to a distant memory.

My weekly contact visits allowed me to be a disciplinarian of sorts when my children misbehaved in some way at home during the week. Sharing responsibility in the role of parenting prevented my children’s mother from being vilified for being the one who continuously scolded and implemented harsh punishment. 

A simple “I’m gonna tell ya father” carried enough weight to cause my son to shape up, knowing he would have to see me in person at the upcoming visit. Without that presence of strict authority in his life, he’s becoming hardheaded.

Not being able to feel the warm embraces of my loved ones is torturous. Those hugs, handshakes and kisses are the only physical contact I receive in this maximum security prison; they represent the remnants of my humanity.

Meanwhile, incarcerated men in New Jersey prisons who have been fully vaccinated and boosted are testing positive at a high rate. And after a 10-day quarantine period, they’re still permitted to maintain their contact visit privilege.

People working at the facility, such as the custody staff, clergy, maintenance, teachers and food service workers, are allowed to be around people in prison regardless of anyone’s vaccination status. It is baffling to me that our family and friends are not awarded the same choice.

Prison staff are given leeway to pass on the vaccinations for a multitude of reasons, including religious exemptions. The same concessions should be available to us.

This article was published in collaboration with the Captive Voices writing program at New Jersey State Prison.