When Prison Guards Refuse Vaccines

A dispatch from an incarcerated person in Pennsylvania on the risks unvaccinated guards pose to prisoners.

Mari Cohen and Stephen Wilson
October 1, 2021
The state prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, April 13th, 2010.
Carolyn Kaster / AP

By the end of this summer, many states had reached an encouraging milestone by providing Covid-19 vaccination doses to the large majority of their incarcerated populations. States like California, Illinois, and Minnesota have vaccinated over 70% of prisoners; in Maine, a full 82% of prisoners have completed their multi-dose vaccination schedule. With incarcerated individuals especially vulnerable to Covid-19 given tight living quarters and often subpar medical care, the relative success of prison vaccination campaigns is welcome news. (Some states lag behind—for example, the UCLA Law Covid Behind Bars Data Project reports that just 54% of incarcerated people have been vaccinated in Connecticut and 58% in West Virginia.)

Yet while such rates suggest that the virus might be unlikely to circulate in prison settings given solid vaccine coverage, another, conflicting variable is also at work: prison staff vaccination rates. Across the country, correctional officer vaccination rates consistently trail prisoner vaccination rates, even though prison staff received early priority for the vaccine (these numbers could be an undercount, given that unlike prisoners, staff are not required to share their vaccination status). As a result, staff bear significant responsibility for introducing new cases into prisons: the Covid Behind Bars Data Project found that more than 40% of new cases in correctional facilities have come from staff since April 2021, a near-doubling from the first year of the pandemic.

Some governors and state agencies have responded by instituting vaccine mandates for correctional staff, a move that prisoner advocates have pushed, but correctional officer unions have openly resisted such mandates. On Monday, a federal judge upheld California’s prison guard vaccine mandate—which had been ordered by a federal receiver who oversees prison medical care in the state—even after the guards union sought to block it, claiming that the mandate was likely to make too many guards unavailable for work. (Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who received $1.75 million from the union while fending off a recent unsuccessful recall effort, had also opposed the mandate.)

When prison staff continue to drive Covid-19 outbreaks, the result isn’t just that prisoners are vulnerable to breakthrough infections: it’s also that prisons go on lockdown and limit programming in response to outbreaks, meaning that prisoners’ movements and activities are significantly restricted. “Now, with rising cases on the outside and unvaccinated staff likely serving as vectors bringing the virus into prisons, agencies are reimposing restrictive measures on their incarcerated populations, including suspending visitation and programming,” the Covid Behind Bars Data Project wrote on August 12th.

For this week’s newsletter (subscribe here!), Stevie Wilson—who is incarcerated in Pennsylvania, where guards have an especially low vaccination rate—describes how the correctional staff’s refusal to get vaccinated has affected him and other prisoners. While Pennsylvania has now instituted a mandate for guards, requiring them to get the shot or get tested weekly, many have resisted the order, impacting Stevie’s daily activities and sense of safety.

On September 21st, an announcement was made on my block. We were going into semi-quarantine, because a prisoner on my block who was scheduled to be released tested positive for Covid-19. How did this happen? Everyone on my block was vaccinated. All unvaccinated prisoners have been moved to one block. Apparently, a Department of Corrections (DOC) employee brought Covid inside. There is no other way for the virus to get behind these walls.

This past summer, the Pennsylvania DOC offered prisoners, staff, and guards the opportunity to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus. This was a welcome move. Nationwide, there have been more than 400,000 Covid cases behind prison walls, resulting in more than 2,700 deaths. More than 80% of Pennsylvania prisoners have opted to take the vaccine. Disturbingly, less than one third of the guards are vaccinated.

In late August, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf mandated vaccination for those working in congregational settings, including prisons and jails. He gave the correctional guards until September 7th to be vaccinated. We, the prisoners, heard grumbling from the guards as soon as the mandate was announced. Initially, they talked about striking. But so far, they have used a lawsuit or opted out of work to needle the DOC. We saw the lawsuit mentioned on the local news the very week the mandate went into effect. Since September 7th, guards have been using their personal and sick days in order to make normal operations harder to enact behind the walls. Classes and activities are being cancelled.

After the initial Covid case, 47 prisoners were tested because they have underlying health conditions. But 116 prisoners live on the block. Why not test everyone to be safe? Two days later, it was revealed that two more vaccinated people tested positive. These prisoners were moved to the infirmary. And still, the rest of the block wasn’t tested.

We know the guards are still bringing the virus in, putting prisoners in harm’s way. They have continued to ignore the mask mandate, and now they are fighting the vaccination mandate. The health and safety of prisoners is of no concern to guards. They have been the conduit for Covid behind these walls. They have been reckless regarding the health of prisoners, especially older, more vulnerable prisoners. While the Pennsylvania DOC is working to implement procedures to reduce the likelihood of Covid getting inside prisons, the guards’ union is working to make sure it can get in. They have learned nothing from the many deaths that have occurred already.

As a prisoner with underlying health conditions, I worry about contact with these guards. I don’t know who is and isn’t vaccinated. I don’t know who is using safety measures when they are not here. What I do know is that these guards don’t have a right to put us in harm’s way.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.

Stephen Wilson is an incarcerated abolitionist working to create a world without cages.