MONTEVIDEO – The biggest troublemakers in Uruguay’s most violent prison lined up on Wednesday to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dubbed “kamikaze kids” by the guards, the young toughs – many of them serving time for relatively minor offenses – endure subhuman conditions at the rat-infested Santiago Vazquez penitentiary on the outskirts of Montevideo, where overcrowding is so acute that prisoners often have to sleep on the concrete floor.
One guard told EFE that the defining characteristic of the group is reckless and impulsive behavior.
Even so, the kamikazes volunteered to be inoculated with the CoronaVac vaccine, manufactured by China’s Sinovac.
After getting the injections, the inmates were directed to the prison’s damp, shabby visiting room for the post-vaccination 30-minute observation period.
By the end of the week, authorities expect to have given each of the more than 3,800 Santiago Vazquez inmates the first of the two required doses of CoronaVac.
The prisons service managed to keep COVID-19 at bay for the first nine months of the pandemic, but officials have since had to cope with several outbreaks, Interior Ministry official Santiago Gonzalez told the media.
Santiago Vazquez currently has 140 active cases of coronavirus and 240 prisoners in quarantine.
“It is a very important strategy,” Gonzalez said of the decision to inoculate inmates. “Prison is just another neighborhood. Many people work in the neighborhood: prisoners, police, guards, non-governmental organizations, people who come to conduct studies, suppliers, people who enter to visit and we have to be careful.”
Vaccine uptake has been disappointing among other groups prioritized to get the shot, such as police, military personnel and teachers, but prison inmates appear to grasp the importance of getting inoculated to bring the pandemic under control.
Possibly because they know very well what it means to be “locked down.”
Inmates got very few opportunities to spend time with family members in 2020. For much of last year, only relatives between the ages of 18 and 60 were allowed to visit loved ones behind bars, meaning that many prisoners went months without seeing their children or grandchildren.
In the women’s prisons, which got the vaccine days ago, more than 95 percent of inmates agreed to be injected and administrators expect a similar response from the men at Santiago Vazquez.