California must mandate COVID-19 vaccine for prison guards, advocates say

A view of a new emergency care facility that was erected to treat inmates infected with COVID-19 at San Quentin State Prison on July 08, 2020 in San Quentin, California.
A view of a new emergency care facility that was erected to treat inmates infected with COVID-19 at San Quentin State Prison on July 08, 2020 in San Quentin, California. Photo credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Following news the union representing state correctional officers reportedly plans to fight California's potential COVID-19 vaccination requirements for its members, prison advocates are sounding the alarm over the health risks they say such a move would pose for incarcerated populations across the state.

UC Hastings professor Hadar Aviram told KCBS Radio on Wednesday that because of already low vaccination rates among prison guards, the highly transmissible delta variant leading to nationwide surges and the cramped conditions of many state prisons, the state should require workers at correctional facilities to be vaccinated.

"Most of the people who work on the custodial side of things, which is to say the rank-and-file prison guards, are state employees," Aviram said. "And, as such, they should be covered (by) the vaccine mandate like everybody else."

The Sacramento Bee on Tuesday obtained a memo the California Correctional Peace Officers Association circulated to its members last week. Union officials wrote that, although its members would be required to be fully vaccinated no later than Sept. 30 since most state prisons have healthcare facilities, they would ask the state to halt the order since it violates the employees’ contract.

Public health officials told the paper that prison healthcare facilities aren't part of the order, and that the department will issue new guidance for prisons and other "congregate settings."

Last week, the federal receiver overseeing medical care at the state’s prisons asked U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco to require vaccines for all prison employees. Only 52.4% of staff in state prisons are fully vaccinated, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, compared to 73.3% of those who are imprisoned.

Since last March, California has had nearly 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among state prisoners. Currently, just shy of 100,000 people are imprisoned.

Over that same span, about one in every 10 people in California has had a confirmed positive case.

"Each and every one of these people has a share in the catastrophe that we have seen, which is the most serious medical catastrophe to happen in a prison in the United States ever," Aviram said of guards and correctional officers who chose not to get vaccinated. "It is essential that every single person working in a correctional institution get vaccinated."

Aviram said prisoners have shared reports of guards mocking them for wearing masks or calling COVID-19 a hoax, while others have alleged some refused to wear masks. With vaccination rates also low among other law enforcement officials, including in police and sheriff’s departments, Aviram argued public officials need to consider how many people are incarcerated and imprisoned.

"And the bottom line is that if it is a problem for the sheriff's department, or for CCPOA or for the state of California to recruit people who cannot be conscientious about (protecting) the people that they are guarding from a medical catastrophe, the conclusion is we should not be (incarcerating) nearly as many people as we do," she said.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images