When Prison Guards Refuse Vaccines, Incarcerated People Pay the Price

Tensions are boiling as large swathes of prison guards continue rejecting COVID-19 vaccinations despite mandates in certain states for public-sector employees. Vaccination rates for prison staff members rangeThe average Colorado rate is 55 percent, with a range of 23 to 78 percent in Alabama and Colorado. amongst jurisdictions that have reported data.

The dispute is escalating during a raging pandemic, which, at the time that this article was published, was approximately 1,250 peopleEach day, people in the United States are dying of COVID-19. At least 2,885 incarcerated people and 315 staff members In prisons and jails, the virus has claimed the lives.

Fivety-three percent of Massachusetts Department of Correction (MDOC), prison guards were female. unvaccinated 11 days before the state’s October 17 deadline. On October 12, Massachusetts Governor. Charlie Baker issued orders to activate 250 members of the National Guardto fill positions in prisons across the state. Timothy Hillman, U.S. District Judge, was appointed to the position days later. denied Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union’s request for a preliminary injunction against Governor Baker’s vaccine mandate, meaning the mandate will still go into effect while the correction officers’ lawsuit moves forward. Over 1,000 Massachusetts Department of Correction guards are unvaccinated. They could be fired. According to a report, three dozen union members were disciplined so far. membership updateFrom the union dated October 20,

The correction officers’ union is arguing that the mandate violates guards’ constitutional and contractual rights and interferes with officers’ rights to decline medical treatment. “Government SHOULD NOT and MUST NOT be allowed to mandate and force employees against their will and free choice,” the president of the correction officers’ union argued in a letter to Massachusetts representativesOctober 6. It is unclear where the union draws the line between laws or mandates that are unjust and those that are warranted, or how the union justifies its complicity in a carceral system that routinely infringes on people’s individual freedoms. The correction officers’ union did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment. In the October 20th letter the union wrote that the executive board of the correction officers’ union “will continue to hold this administration accountable for the unimaginable treatment you now have to endure, or we will go down swinging in the process.”

The law is unlikely to be on the union’s side. Judge Hillman cited an 1905 Supreme Court case concerning the smallpox vaccine. set a precedent for vaccine mandates. “Even considering the economic impact on the Plaintiffs if they choose not to be vaccinated,” Hillman wrote in the ruling, “when balancing that harm against the legitimate and critical public interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the vaccination rate, particularly in congregate facilities, the Court finds the balance weighs in favor of the broader public interests.”

Tony Gaskins, a former prisoner rights advocate and lawyer in jailhouses in Massachusetts, stated that many guards are refusing entry to the mandate. He has been incarcerated there for 30 years. “They’re running with skeleton crews,” Gaskins told Truthout. “They got a lot of guys working overtime. They work in two shifts a day right now.”

Showdowns in other states took many forms. Many state and city governments have succumbed to the demands from public sector unions, temporarily allowing for weekly COVID-19 testsIn lieu of vaccination and have repeatedly pushed back vaccine-or-test deadlines. Police prison guard unions — who tend to have far lower rates of vaccination than incarcerated people and educational employees — have been filing lawsuits across the country.

They’ve achieved some success on at least one occasion. On October 13, Judge Bernard Barmann issued a temporary restraining orderCalifornia has been prevented from enforcing a mandate for vaccines for prison staff. Democratic Governor. Gavin Newsom, who received $1.75million from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association opposes the mandate to give vaccines to prison guards, was also a recipient of $1.75million. In keeping with national trends, prison guards’ vaccination rate of 61 percent in California is far lower than the incarcerated population’s 77 percent.

New York City prison guards have until December 1 to get their shotsOther public sector employees must be given the dose by October 29. Just 50 percentNew York City guards are vaccinated.

A Pattern of Desvaluing Incarcerated People’s Lives

Guards’ refusal to vaccinate fits within a larger pattern of departmental disregard for the health and well-being of incarcerated people.

Massachusetts passed legislation to recognize prisons and jails were a threat to public safety during the pandemic. create an ombudsman’s office within the Department of Corrections tasked with ensuring the state’s prisons were complying with health and safety practices in 2020. According to Katy Naples Mitchell, staff attorney at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, the department has been slow in moving forward.

“The Department of Corrections has for months and months been defying a legislative mandate to appoint an independent public health expert to oversee COVID mitigation efforts,” she said. “So with that outstanding, it is no surprise, frankly, that the Department of Corrections has not taken steps to ensure the safety of incarcerated people or to create a culture of compliance with public health vaccination among its staff.”

Governor Baker’s decision to activate the National Guard, rather than decarcerate, also falls into a pattern of devaluing the lives of incarcerated people. Their deployment will only make prison conditions worse, which is already unaffordable.

“They are trained to kill, point-blank. They’re trained to be security for the country,” said Gaskins. “So it’s scary for a lot of guys. The unknown can become explosive. if you bring them in here and they don’t know how to deal with situations, it could get out of control quick.”

The Massachusetts Governor’s Office has said the National Guard will only be involved in transportation and exterior security functions at state prisons, but there aren’t independent mechanisms in place to oversee them.

To address staff shortages, other prisons and jail systems across the country have also hired outside assistance. In response to a need, 100 officers from the New York Police Department were sent to Rikers island jail complex in September. growing number of AWOL staffers. The National Guard was deployed to state prisons for men in New HampshireDecember 2020

Both Gaskins, Naples-Mitchell and Gaskins resisted the notion that most prisons are understaffed. The number of people in prison has increased. shrunk by half over the past 10 yearsMassachusetts has seen a drop in prison guards of 20 percent and correctional spending has increased. increased substantially despite a decreasing incarceration rate.

MDOC’s spending is predominantly funneled into employees’ salaries and pensionsProgramming for incarcerated persons is not what we are talking about. COVID-19-related restrictions have reduced the number of rehabilitative activities that exist. Gaskins said Truthout Since the outbreak of the pandemic, in-person visits have been very limited. “There are people who haven’t touched their children in over a year, who haven’t seen their wives, their children, their mothers, their grandmothers, their cousins, their loved ones, period,” he said. Yet, Massachusetts Correctional Industries jobs — where incarcerated people make up to a dollar per hour — have continued.

It’s been a year and a half, Gaskins said, yet Governor Baker has yet to use his clemency power. “We’re losing our minds up in here. Some kill themselves, or hurt themselves on a daily basis,” said Gaskins. “That’s what’s going on inside of here because of this pandemic. And it’s only going to get worse if the guards don’t get their shot.”

Decarceration Is More Protective Than Vaccination

Over 400,000 guards, both vaccinated or unvaccinated, could be spread disease by moving in and outside of often-crowded and unsanitary prisons. As such, the U.S. carceral system has functioned as an “epidemic engine” for spreading the novel coronavirus, according to a new study. By analyzing data from 1,605 counties, researchers found that an 80 percent reduction in U.S. jail populations would have been associated with a 2 percent reduction in daily COVID-19 cases — a reduction that would have prevented millions of cases.

New research has shown that people who get a breakthrough infected with the Delta variant of the flu vaccine are more likely to be vaccinated. less likely to pass the virus than unvaccinated peopleHowever, after three months, the protective effect against transmission decreases. The Delta variant spread like wildfire in a population of incarcerated people with a 79 per cent vaccination rate. The vaccine protected against hospitalization but 74 percent of the incarcerated population became infected with COVID-19. Even if everyone was fully vaccinated the case study shows that jails and prisons could still be dangerous epidemic engines fueling new viral variants.

The best solution for promoting public health and safetyThe final option is to decarcerate. “There are guys here who are in their 80s, 70s, 60s,” Gaskins said. “If they catch this thing it’s going to kill them. What they need to do is set up a system where you can pick the people and let them out of here.” Data shows older people who were convicted of serious crimes in their youth are among the least likely to be rearrested.

“The gold standard approach to managing an infectious disease in a jail or prison environment is removing people from that environment, releasing people who can be safely released. The Department of Correction continues to prevent that from happening,” said Katy-Mitchell. “We should be finding different ways to respond to harm overall, and thinking about how our system of unparalleled mass human caging is not conducive to keeping communities safe.”