When Prison Guards Refuse Vaccines, Incarcerated People Pay the Price

Tensions are reaching a boiling point as large swaths of prison guards continue to refuse COVID-19 vaccines despite mandates in some states for public sector employees. Vaccination rates for prison staff members range from 23 percent in Alabama to 78 percent in Colorado, and average 55 percent amongst jurisdictions that have reported data.

The disputes are coming to a head during a raging pandemic where, at the time of publishing, roughly 1,250 people are dying from COVID-19 each day in the United States. At least 2,885 incarcerated people and 315 staff members in prisons and jails have died from the virus.

Fifty-three percent of prison guards in the Massachusetts Department of Correction (MDOC) were unvaccinated 11 days before the state’s October 17 deadline. In response, on October 12, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker issued orders to activate 250 members of the National Guard to staff positions at prisons across the state. Days later, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Hillman 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. More than 1,000 unvaccinated Massachusetts Department of Correction guards could be terminated. So far, three dozen union members have been disciplined, according to a membership update from 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 representatives on October 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 20 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 a 1905 Supreme Court case involving the smallpox vaccine, which 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.”

Many guards are protesting the mandate by refusing to come in, according to Tony Gaskins, a jailhouse lawyer and prisoner rights advocate who has been incarcerated in Massachusetts 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 have taken a variety of shapes. Many city and state governments have capitulated to public sector union demands by temporarily allowing for weekly COVID-19 tests in lieu of vaccination and have repeatedly pushed back vaccine-or-test deadlines. Police and 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 order preventing California from enforcing a vaccine mandate for prison staff. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who received $1.75 million from California Correctional Peace Officers Association, opposes the vaccine mandate for prison guards. In line with trends across the country, prison guards’ vaccination rate of 61 percent in California is far lower than the incarcerated population’s 77 percent.

In New York City, prison guards have until December 1 to get their shots, while other public sector employees must receive a dose by October 29. Just 50 percent of guards in New York City are vaccinated.

A Pattern of Devaluing Incarcerated Lives

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

Recognizing prisons and jails as a threat to public health during the pandemic, Massachusetts passed legislation to 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. Yet, the department has dragged its feet every step of the way, according to Katy Naples-Mitchell, staff attorney at Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

“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 threatens to worsen prison conditions that are already unbearable.

“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 could become very 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.

Other prison and jail systems around the country have also recruited outside assistance to address perceived staff shortages. In late September, 100 New York Police Department officers were sent to Rikers Island jail complex in response to a growing number of AWOL staffers. The National Guard was deployed in state prisons for men in New Hampshire in December 2020.

Both Gaskins and Naples-Mitchell pushed back on the idea that most prisons are short-staffed. The number of incarcerated people has shrunk by half over the past 10 years in Massachusetts, but the number of prison guards has fallen by 20 percent, and correctional spending has increased substantially despite a decreasing incarceration rate.

MDOC’s spending is predominantly funneled into employees’ salaries and pensions, not programming for incarcerated people. And now COVID-19 related restrictions have decreased the few rehabilitative activities that existed. Gaskins told Truthout that in-person visits have been extremely limited since the beginning of the pandemic. “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

Across the country, over 400,000 vaccinated and unvaccinated guards potentially serve as vectors for spreading disease by moving in and out of oftentimes crowded and unsanitary prisons and jails every day. 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 studies show that vaccinated people who experience a breakthrough infection with the Delta variant are less likely to pass the virus than unvaccinated people, but that protective effect against transmission dwindles after three months of receiving a second shot. Over the summer, the Delta variant spread like wildfire among an incarcerated population with a 79 percent vaccination rate. While the vaccine was protective against hospitalization, 74 percent of the incarcerated population was ultimately infected with COVID-19. The case study shows that even if everyone were fully vaccinated, jails and prisons would still serve as dangerous epidemic engines fueling the emergence of new viral variants.

The best solution for promoting public health and safety, ultimately, 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.”