BISMARCK — Inmates at two of North Dakota's biggest jails have no opportunity to get COVID-19 vaccinations after local law enforcement leaders opted not to make the jab available.

Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben and Williams County Sheriff Verlan Kvande said the jails they oversee aren't offering vaccinations to those behind bars despite proposals from local public health agencies to provide shots. Meanwhile, jails in Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown, Minot and Dickinson have been offering and promoting the shot for months.

Leben said he chose not to offer shots to inmates at the Burleigh Morton County Detention Center because the Bismarck jail hasn't provided vaccinations in the past. He said his department has gone "back and forth" on the issue, but the COVID-19 pandemic is "uncharted ground" and his staff are trying to determine what's right for inmates and the taxpayers who pick up the tab for their care.

The frequent coming and going of inmates at the jail means it would be hard to guarantee they receive a second shot of the vaccine, Leben said. He cited extremely rare blood clot issues that caused regulators to briefly suspend the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine as a reason the jail has not offered that jab.

Leben added that lawyers he consulted said there could be liability for the sheriff's department "on both sides" of the decision whether to offer shots.

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Renae Moch, director of Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, said her agency twice offered to vaccinate inmates: first when correctional facilities came up in the state's vaccination priority list and more recently when the Johnson & Johnson shot was first approved for emergency use.

“We provided the education and opportunity and were turned down,” Moch said.

Moch rejected Leben's concern with the Johnson & Johnson shot, noting that the blood clotting has afflicted a very small number of people and all of those who experienced the possible side effect were women — most of the jail's inmates are men. She added that an outbreak of COVID-19 would be much more damaging than the likely minimal side effects experienced by inmates.

Given the elevated risk of COVID-19 flare-ups in close-quartered living facilities like the jail, Moch said it would be nice if inmates could choose to get vaccinated rather than having the decision made for them.

Renae Moch, director of Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, speaks to the Bismarck City Commission on Sept. 8, 2020. Michelle Griffith / The Forum
Renae Moch, director of Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, speaks to the Bismarck City Commission on Sept. 8, 2020. Michelle Griffith / The Forum

Dane DeKrey, advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, said depriving inmates of the option to get vaccinated is a human rights issue, and sheriffs who take immunizations off the table are failing in their constitutional duty to protect inmates.

“For the last year, have we not heard how important it is to vaccinate ourselves to protect the herd?" DeKrey said. "To act as if people who are in jail are not part of that conversation is frankly kind of a gross dehumanization of people who may have made a bad decision but are still North Dakotans.”

DeKrey said everyone behind bars should have the choice to get vaccinated as a matter of "basic humanity," but he noted that many inmates in jails haven't even been convicted of a crime, so there should be no argument about whether they deserve available medical remedies.

When asked if denying the vaccination option to inmates is unfair, Leben said he believed inmates are very reluctant to get the vaccine and there would be little demand for it anyway. Leben would not say whether he got the jab, adding that he encouraged his staff to make their own decisions on vaccinations with their families and medical providers.

Leben said the jail will soon start working with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to offer vaccinations to a few inmates who are bound for prisons, but there are no plans to make shots available to the majority of inmates. Leben said his department has to move in "baby steps" because "there could be consequences either way," but added he could see the jail opening up vaccinations to more inmates in the future.

Bottles of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit ready for use in December 2020. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service
Bottles of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit ready for use in December 2020. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service


Kvande said his staff looked at putting on one mass vaccination event at Williston's Williams County Correctional Center, but decided against it because they didn't want to overwhelm nurses with inmates experiencing side effects. He said the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were ruled out because of the jail's transient population, but staff will continue looking into the possibility of offering the Johnson & Johnson jab. Kvande added that local health officials have offered to perform vaccinations in the jail.

The sheriff said he hasn't heard any grievances from inmates about the lack of vaccine access, noting that other pandemic precautions like mandatory mask-wearing have not been popular in the jail.

Leben and Kvande said no inmates have died of COVID-19 in their jails and that the disease has not been transmitted within their facilities.

On a national level, prisons and jails have become hotbeds for severe outbreaks. At least 2,680 inmates at state and federal prisons, which do not include county jails, have been reported dead from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization.

The jails in Bismarck and Williston are outliers among their peers when it comes to offering COVID-19 vaccinations.

Capt. Andrew Frobig said the Cass County Jail in Fargo began working with public health officials to offer and encourage vaccinations in late March. He said demand for the shot hasn't been very high lately with fewer than 15 takers per week, but many longer-serving inmates received jabs when they were first made available.

Doris Songer, operations manager at the Dickinson Adult Detention Center, said most inmates at her jail have chosen not to get vaccinated so far, but she'd like to get more on board with the Johnson & Johnson shot becoming available again. Songer said she has set a target of 70% vaccination rate in the jail before resuming a popular work-release program — an incentive she hopes will convince some holdouts. Songer said it's important for jails to offer vaccinations to keep the inmates and their families safe.

Administrators at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center in Grand Forks, the Ward County Detention Center in Minot and the Stutsman County Correctional Center in Jamestown confirmed to Forum News Service that their jails have offered and will continue to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to inmates.

The state corrections department has heavily prioritized the shot in its prisons, with about 73% of state inmates having been fully vaccinated against the disease as of Tuesday, May 25.

The North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. Korrie Wenzel / Forum News Service
The North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. Korrie Wenzel / Forum News Service