Government Continues Showing Cruel Indifference to Prisoners’ Lives
by Jo Ellen Nott
Entering the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, those incarcerated in U.S. prisons remain sitting ducks for the ever-mutating virus, due to their poor access to health care and their inability to socially distance in particular. So the resistance of detention facility staff to vaccines—turning guards into vectors of transmission to bring the disease inside the lockups where they work—is the biggest threat to the health and well-being of prisoners.
Even in the face of inoculation mandates to recalcitrant prison and jail staff, the rate of vaccinated staff in most states has risen due only to the threat of firing. Ironically, prisoners typically have higher vaccination rates than the people paid to ensure their safety.
Data regarding vaccination rates of detention facility staff are spotty. Some 40% of states do not report data and still others do not track vaccinations outside the prison setting. Some states such as Florida and Georgia have stopped tracking COVID-19 in their prison systems at all. The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Project points out that this limited data transparency makes comparing guard vaccination rates to prisoner vaccination rates imprecise. With that said, let’s check the states that are publishing data.
Michigan, California and Illinois
In the last week of January 2022, some 5,500 prisoners in Michigan—15% of the total—had active infections, a rate about the same as all adult Michiganders. Of those infected, 63% had gotten at least one jab. A third had also been boosted. The state Department of Corrections (DOC) said it was not the worst positivity rate seen for prisoners during the pandemic, but spokesperson Chris Gautz reported that 75 employees were testing positive every day, a higher number than ever seen. Prison staffers in Michigan are not required to get vaccinated, and the state is not keeping records of employee vaccination rates.
California reported a total of 4,938 new active cases among prison employees in the week ending February 7, 2022. At least 14,507 people who work for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had tested positive for COVID-19 since December 1, 2021. On the state Health Care Services webpage, this advisory appeared in very small print: “While the vaccine is not required for all CDCR and CCHCS [California Correctional Health Care Services] staff at this time, it is strongly encouraged to protect yourself and everyone around you.”
Against this backdrop, Gov. Gavin Newsome (D) sided with the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association (CCPOA) to fight a federal judge’s order that all prison workers must be vaccinated, which was issued by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on September 27, 2021. See: Plata v. Newsom, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 190446 (N.D. Cal.).
The U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit then stayed that order on November 27, 2021, pushing back the vaccination deadline from January 12, 2022, to sometime after a hearing is scheduled in March 2022. See: Plata v. Newsom, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 35098 (9th Cir.).
Meanwhile on December 31, 2021, the Los Angeles Times noted that CDCR was not keeping up with staff testing: The agency’s more than 10,000 unvaccinated staffers should be tested two times a week, but data shows one-third were noncompliant from mid-October to mid-November. Opponents of the vaccine mandate were seeing the grim reality of understaffing they warned about, but not from resignations: In the last week of January 2022, 21 state prisons each had over 100 guards out sick with COVID-19.
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) mandated that state workers in congregate-care settings must be vaccinated by early October 2021. But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the powerful union representing DOC’s approximately 13,000 guards, vehemently opposed that mandate as too “rigid.” In the face of this, Pritzker caved and extended the deadline to late November 2021 while the conflict was arbitrated.
By mid-January 2022, as the Omicron variant of the disease spread, 3,300 prisoners and almost 1,100 staff members in Illinois prisons were infected, with the deaths of one prisoner and two staff members recorded during the latest wave. Only 12% of the guards have had booster shots, which are crucial in the fight against Omicron. In contrast, 44% of state prisoners had been boosted by the end of 2021.
In a decision on December 31, 2021, Arbitrator Edwin Benn ruled against AFSCME and set a deadline for staff at DOC’s 51 facilities to be vaccinated or provide a religious exemption by January 31, 2022. Meanwhile, DOC’s staff inoculation rate rose from 44% in August 2021 to 64% at the end of December, closer to the 75% rate for state prisoners.
Washington’s DOC said 92% of its employees had been vaccinated by October 2021. At the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, 89.5% of the staff took all the shots by October 25, 2021, when 49 guards had been fired from the penitentiary for violating the vaccine mandate of Gov. Jay Inslee (D). Just 10 received religious or medical exemptions, after most of the remaining 124 exemption requests initially filed were withdrawn. Only 350 employees quit or were fired state-wide, representing 4.5% of DOC employees who left their posts unwillingly.
In King County, where Seattle is located, the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention lost over 24 staff with another 35 being terminated by mid-January 2022.
On the opposite coast, the vaccine mandate of Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) does not apply to those working inside jails and prisons, not even those who provide medical care. Mills’ office has not gone public with a reason. On February 9, 2022, the state DOC Weekly Dashboard showed 81.4% of adult prisoners were vaccinated. The vaccination rate for correctional staff was 67% when last reported by the Kennebec Journal on October 9, 2021.
Nevada’s emergency vaccine mandate caused a 12% increase in the number of corrections workers getting vaccinated between October 2021—when 55% had asked for an exemption, the majority citing religious beliefs—and November 2021, when 830 guards were reprimanded for not complying. By then 76% of corrections staff had been partially or fully vaccinated. A permanent mandate was blocked by the Republican-led state legislature in December 2021, so the emergency mandate expired in early January 2022. State law prevents the Department of Health from issuing another emergency mandate.
In New Jersey as of February 1, 2022, almost 62% of the prisoner population was fully vaccinated. Yet only 40% of state prison guards had been vaccinated, reflecting the anti-vax stance of the state Policeman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), which filed for a restraining order in response to an executive order by Gov. Phil Murphy (D) that correctional workers must get all three shots. PBA head Pat Colligan worried that the governor’s order would force hundreds of guards to leave rather than get vaccinated, exacerbating an existing labor shortage and forcing the remaining guards to work compulsory overtime.
Compulsory overtime requirements are seen nationwide and severely impact correctional staff morale and wellness. But mandates have also nudged vaccination rates higher for prison guards. Still in most states with publicly available data, prisoners have higher vaccination rates than the people paid to protect their health and safety. Guards, usually right-leaning politically and often prone to misinformation and conspiracy theories, continue to oppose vaccine mandates and use religious and medical exemptions to skirt the duty. Their unions continue suits to lift mandates crafted to help those in congregate care settings avoid infection and death.
The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project states it this way: “There is no reason that incarcerated people—who often cannot social distance but have chosen to receive vaccines in large numbers—should pay the price for staff refusals, either through suspended privileges or through needless infection and death.”
Additional sources: Bergen Record, Champaign News-Gazette, Chicago Tribune, Courthouse News, Davis Vanguard, KTNV, Kennebec Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Marshall Project, Nevada Current, Prison Policy Initiative, UCLA
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Related legal cases
Plata v. Newsome
|USDC, ND CA, Case No. 4:01-cv-01351-JST
Plata v. Newsom
|2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 190446 (N.D. Cal.)
Plata v. Newsom
|2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 35098 (9th Cir.)