Ohio county to offer jail inmates free snacks, phone calls to get vaccinated
"We're doing everything we can to figure out how to get people vaccinated," said a county spokeswoman
By Courtney Astolfi
Advance Ohio Media
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County intends to offer jail inmates free phone calls, video visits, and commissary items in exchange for getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
The incentive packages, valued at roughly $50 per person, are intended to boost low vaccination rates among inmates, who so far have shown little interest in getting the shot, jail director Ronda Gibson said Monday.
The plan is for inmates to choose among: phone calls, remote video visits, or a bag of popular items from the jail commissary, such as Oreos, ramen noodles, honey buns, and chips.
"We're doing everything we can to figure out how to get people vaccinated," county spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan said, adding that it's a matter of safety for fellow inmates and jail staff. It's also a concern post-release, once inmates return to their communities, she said.
The program is expected to cost taxpayers no more than $507,500, which should cover incentives for up to 3,025 inmates through the end of 2021.
Inmate inoculation rates have dipped by more than half since the vaccine was first made available. Earlier this year, some 80 inmates per week elected to get vaccinated. Now, that number has fallen to between 20 and 40, Madigan said.
All told, only 557 inmates have been vaccinated — a small sliver compared to Monday's jail population alone of 1,642. Because the jail population is largely transient, it's likely only a small percentage of inmates on any given day would have received the vaccine while behind bars.
The commissary incentives are expected to cost up to $230,000. The money will go to Keefe Group, which runs the jail commissary. The county is checking to see whether it can use federal coronavirus aid to pay for the program.
The Board of Control, which approves contracts up to $500,000, signed off on the commissary package costs during a Monday meeting.
Costs for the phone calls and remote video visits have yet to be negotiated and finalized, Madigan said.
Those incentives would come through Securus Technologies, with whom the county already contracts for a variety of jail services, including phone calls and video visits.
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