With travel bans and mandated self-sequestering, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a force of isolation for many. However, having the resources to self-sequester in the safety of one’s own home is a luxury many don’t have — particularly those incarcerated in California prisons. Despite prisons being facilities that contain medically vulnerable communities, California prison staff is not required to be fully vaccinated, which could consequently impose grave health risks on the incarcerated.
An October 2021 district court order resulting from ongoing litigation in the Plata v. Newsom case would have required all corrections officers to be vaccinated but was overturned on appeal by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the statewide prison guard union, pending the case’s appellate hearings in March 2022.
Following a public health order released August 2021 mandating vaccines for staff working in medical settings in California prisons, the prison guards’ union filed an injunction the following month to protest the mandate. While the original deadline for full vaccination was the end of October and the appealed date the end of November, less than 85% of the staff at the California Medical Facility, or CMF, and the California Health Care Facility, or CHCF, are vaccinated today — and even fewer have acquired booster shots.
In both the CMF and the CHCF, many staff members have been granted “religious exemptions” to the vaccine. These religious exemptions do not have to be substantiated and can act as a free pass for anyone who prefers not to get vaccinated. Vaccine exemptions on the grounds of medical complications are similarly discretionary.
This has resulted in COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons, severe short-staffing, delays in testing due to chronic staff shortage and a discontinuation of all rehabilitative programs and visitation. This lack of access exponentially deprives incarcerated individuals of the little autonomy they have over their physical and mental well-being.
Despite going against California public health standards, the prison guards’ union’s appeal to the staff vaccine court order succeeded with the support of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who argued in part that regular surveillance testing is enough to contain the spread. However, even with requirements to test for COVID-19 twice per week, large percentages of employees aren’t doing so and face no consequences, according to court filings.
In California’s crowded correctional facilities, an unvaccinated prison staff presents dire health risks for those who are incarcerated. It is time to hold the prison guards’ union, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Newsom administration accountable for this reckless approach to public safety.
Prison staff must be required to get fully vaccinated — and the health mandate should be enforced by requiring regular surveillance testing from all staff. Additionally, incarcerated individuals who have COVID-19 and are detained for minor infractions should be released early.
By reducing the incarcerated population, the state will have more vacancies, staff members and protective equipment to best contain the spread. With fewer incarcerated, more funds could also potentially be allocated to bolster the safety of the remaining population, creating feasible conditions for social distancing and necessary health measures.
Incarcerated individuals are being forced to live in Petri dishes amidst COVID-19 with no control over their own health. Prison guards should never have the power to dictate and deteriorate the physical health and safety of those who are incarcerated.