[Pnews] “Hell No”: Correctional Officers Are Declining The Coronavirus Vaccine En Masse
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Mar 15 10:51:31 EDT 2021
“Hell No”: Correctional Officers Are Declining The Coronavirus
Vaccine En Masse
By Nicole Lewis <http://www.themarshallproject.org/staff/nicole-lewis>
AND Michael Sisak - March 15, 2021
A Florida correctional officer polled his colleagues earlier this year
in a private Facebook group: “Will you take the COVID-19 vaccine if
The answer from more than half: “Hell no.” Only 40 of the 475
respondents said yes.
In Massachusetts, more than half the people employed by the Department
of Correction declined to be immunized
A statewide survey in California showed that half of all correctional
employees will wait to be vaccinated. In Rhode Island, prison staff have
refused the vaccine at higher rates than the incarcerated, according to
medical director Dr. Justin Berk. And in Iowa, early polling among
employees showed a little more than half the staff said they’d get
As states have begun COVID-19 inoculations at prisons across the
country, corrections employees are refusing vaccines at alarming rates,
causing some public health experts to worry about the prospect of
controlling the pandemic both inside and outside. Infection rates in
prisons are more than three times as high as in the general public.
Prison staff helped accelerate outbreaks by refusing to wear masks,
downplaying people’s symptoms,
and haphazardly enforcing social distancing and hygiene protocols in
confined, poorly ventilated spaces ripe for viral spread.
The Marshall Project and The Associated Press spoke with correctional
officers and union leaders nationwide, as well as with public health
experts and doctors working inside prisons, to understand why officers
are declining to be vaccinated, despite being at higher risk of
contracting COVID-19. Many employees spoke on the condition of anonymity
because they feared they would lose their jobs if they spoke out.
In December and January, at least 37 prison systems began to offer
vaccines to their employees, particularly front-line correctional
officers and those who work in health care. More than 106,000 prison
employees in 29 systems, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have
received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data
compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press since
December. That number is likely an undercount because 40% of the states
are not reporting information on how many of their employees are
inoculated. And some states are not tracking employees who get
vaccinated in a community setting such as a clinic or pharmacy.
Still, some correctional officers are refusing the vaccine because they
fear both short- and long-term side effects of the immunizations. Others
have embraced conspiracy theories about the vaccine. Distrust of the
prison administration and its handling of the virus has also discouraged
officers from being immunized. In some instances, correctional officers
said they would rather be fired than be vaccinated.
The resistance to the vaccine is not unique to correctional officers.
Healthcare workers, caretakers in nursing homes
and police officers — who have witnessed the worst effects of the
pandemic — have declined to be vaccinated at unexpectedly high rates.
The refusal of prison workers to take the vaccine threatens to undermine
efforts to control the pandemic both inside and outside of prisons,
according to public health experts. Prisons are coronavirus hot spots,
so when staff move between the prisons and their home communities after
work, they create a pathway for the virus to spread. More than 388,000
incarcerated people and 105,000 staff members have contracted
the coronavirus over the last year. In states like Michigan, Kansas and
Arizona, that's meant 1 in 3 staff members have been infected. In Maine,
the state with the lowest infection rate, 1 in 20 staff members tested
positive for COVID-19. Nationwide, those infections proved fatal for
2,474 prisoners and at least 193 staff members.
“People who work in prisons are an essential part of the equation that
will lead to reduced disease and less chance of renewed explosive
COVID-19 outbreaks in the future,” said Brie Williams, a correctional
health expert at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
At FCI Miami, a federal prison in Florida, fewer than half the
facility’s 240 employees had been fully vaccinated as of March 11,
according to Kareen Troitino, the local corrections officer union
president. Many of the workers who refused had expressed concerns about
the vaccine’s efficacy and side effects, Troitino said.
In January, Troitino and FCI Miami warden Sylvester Jenkins sent an
email to employees saying that “in an act of solidarity,” they had
agreed to get vaccinated and encouraged staff to do the same. “Even
though we recognize and respect that this motion is not mandatory;
nevertheless, with the intent of promoting staff safety, we encourage
all staff to join us,” the Jan. 27 email said.
Only 25 employees signed up. FCI Miami has had two major coronavirus
outbreaks, Troitino said: last July, when more than 400 prisoners out of
852 were suspected of having the disease, and in December, when about
100 people were affected at the facility’s minimum-security camp.
Because so many correctional officers and prisoners haven’t been
vaccinated, there are fears that could happen again. “Everybody is on
edge,” Troitino said. Though he’s gotten the shot, he’s worried
about another outbreak and the impact on already stretched staffing at
The pandemic has strained prisons already struggling with low
vaccination rates among officers could push prisons to their breaking
point. At the height of the outbreak behind bars, several states had to
call in the National Guard
to temporarily run the facilities because so many staff members had
called out sick or refused to work.
At FCI Miami, officers are constantly shuttling sick and elderly
prisoners to the hospital, Troitino said. As a result, a skeleton crew
of staff is left to operate the prison. Unvaccinated staff only compound
the problem as they run the risk of getting sick when outbreaks crop up
in the prisons.
“A lot of employees get scared when they find out, ‘Oh, we had an
outbreak in a unit, 150 inmates have COVID,’” Troitino said.
“Everybody calls in sick.”
Part of the resistance to the vaccine is widespread misinformation among
correctional staff, said Brian Dawe, a former correctional officer and
national director of One Voice United, a policy and advocacy group for
officers. A majority of people in law enforcement lean right, Dawe said.
“They get a lot of their information from the right-wing media
outlets,” he said. “A lot of them believe you don’t have to wear
masks. That it’s like the flu.” National polls have shown that
Republicans without college degrees are the most resistant to the
Several correctional officers in Florida, speaking on the condition of
anonymity because they are not permitted to talk to the press, said many
of their colleagues believe that the vaccine could give them the virus.
Some have latched onto debunked conspiracy theories circulating on
social media, the officers said, believing the vaccine contains tracking
devices produced by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates
who has donated to coronavirus treatment research. (The vaccine does not
contain tracking devices.) Others believe the vaccine was hastily
produced without enough time to understand the long-term side effects.
“I wouldn’t care if I worked in a dorm with every inmate having
COVID, I still wouldn’t get (vaccinated),” said a correctional
sergeant who has worked for the Florida Department of Corrections for
more than a decade. “If I’m wearing a mask, gloves, washing my hands
and being careful — I’d still feel better working like that than
putting the vaccine in my body.”
Officer attitudes about the vaccine are so widespread that researchers
at UCSF have created a frequently asked questions flyer for the
incarcerated that includes: “I heard the guards/officers … at my
facility are refusing to get the vaccine. If they aren’t getting it,
why should I?” The researchers encourage the incarcerated to learn as
much as they can about the vaccine and to make their own decision
“regardless of what other people are doing.”
Public health experts have urged states to prioritize vaccinations in
prisons and jails
but cautioned against prioritizing staff over prisoners. Though numbers
aren’t available from many states, at least 15 began vaccinating staff
before the incarcerated, The Marshall Project and The Associated Press
found. “We know they have anti-vax ideations and attitudes,” said
Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, who leads the COVID Prison Project, which
tracks correction officials' responses to the pandemic
<https://covidprisonproject.com/>. “We have said again and again, we
shouldn’t have this two-tier system.”
But guards’ refusal to be vaccinated has been a blessing for some
incarcerated people. The vaccines have a short shelf life after being
thawed out, so officials have offered the leftover vaccines to prisoners
instead of letting them go to waste. Julia Ann Poff is incarcerated at
FMC Carswell, a federal prison in Texas for women with special medical
and mental health needs, for sending bombs to state and federal
officials. She said she received her first shot in mid-December, after
several officers declined.
“I consider myself very blessed to have received it,” she wrote,
using the prison’s email system. “I have lupus and a recent
diagnosis of heart disease, so there was no way I could afford to let
myself get (sick).”
Misinformation and conspiracy theories aside, some officers in federal
prisons say they are refusing the vaccine because they do not trust the
prison administration. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has come under fire
by employees and the incarcerated for its response to the coronavirus.
Among the criticisms: a lack of masks and soap in the pandemic’s early
days, broken thermometers at one facility and sick prisoners who say
they were bunched together without social distancing.
At FCI Mendota, a medium-security federal prison near Fresno,
California, officials closed off the main employee entrance in January,
funneled the employees through a visiting room turned vaccination clinic
and forced them to decide on the spot whether to get vaccinated.
Employees weren’t allowed to proceed to their posts without either
getting vaccinated or signing a form declaring they refused the vaccine.
Aaron McGlothin, a local corrections officers’ union president, said
he refused the vaccine citing medical issues, adding that he doesn’t
trust prison officials' motives.
Employers cannot mandate that staff get vaccinated. So correctional
officers' refusal puts incarcerated people at risk as they have no way
of protecting themselves from unmasked and unvaccinated officers. By
December, 1 in 5 incarcerated people had contracted the coronavirus,
according to data compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated
Correctional officers can bring the virus home from work and infect
family members, too
In extreme cases, those family members themselves become seriously ill
or even die. At least five family members of correctional employees have
died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the
online memorial Mourning Our Losses
<https://www.mourningourlosses.org/>, which tracks COVID-19 deaths among
those who live and work in prisons and jails. In one instance, a Florida
correctional officer and his wife died in side-by-side intensive care
rooms on the same day.
For some officers, these life and death experiences are a wake-up call.
At FCI Miami, where Troitino leads the local officers’ union, several
employees contracted the virus or were hospitalized for COVID-19 after
officials encouraged them to get vaccinated in late January but they
refused. Some of those employees have expressed a change of heart about
“They have called me begging to have the vaccine reserved for them
upon their return,” Troitino said. “A few faced life and death and
are totally devastated by their experience.”
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