[Pnews] “Hell No”: Correctional Officers Are Declining The Coronavirus Vaccine En Masse

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Mar 15 10:51:31 EDT 2021


https://www.themarshallproject.org/2021/03/15/hell-no-correctional-officers-are-declining-the-coronavirus-vaccine-en-masse?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_source=opening-statement&utm_term=newsletter-20210315-2391 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2021/03/15/hell-no-correctional-officers-are-declining-the-coronavirus-vaccine-en-masse?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_source=opening-statement&utm_term=newsletter-20210315-2391> 



  “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 
offered?”

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 
<https://www.mass.gov/doc/sjc-12926-special-masters-weekly-report-342021/download>. 
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 
vaccinated. 
<https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2021/01/28/prison-workers-refuse-covid-19-vaccine-iowa-department-of-corrections/4294691001/> 


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, 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/10/29/lax-masking-short-quarantines-ignored-symptoms-inside-a-prison-coronavirus-outbreak-in-disbeliever-country> 
downplaying people’s symptoms, 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/06/18/i-begged-them-to-let-me-die-how-federal-prisons-became-coronavirus-death-traps> 
and haphazardly enforcing social distancing and hygiene protocols in 
confined, poorly ventilated spaces ripe for viral spread. 
<https://www.fastcompany.com/90539380/bad-design-kills-why-covid-19-spread-like-wildfire-at-one-of-americas-worst-prisons> 


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 
<https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-wont-some-health-care-workers-get-vaccinated-2021021721967> 
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 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/05/01/a-state-by-state-look-at-coronavirus-in-prisons> 
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 prison.

The pandemic has strained prisons already struggling with low 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/08/13/epstein-s-death-highlights-a-staffing-crisis-in-federal-prisons> 
staffing rates 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/12/09/no-show-prison-workers-cost-mississippi-taxpayers-millions> 
and subpar 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/02/25/how-bad-is-prison-health-care-depends-on-who-s-watching> 
health care 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/05/30/the-580-co-pay>. 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 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/12/21/the-national-guard-is-using-force-on-prisoners-after-little-training> 
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 
vaccine. 
<https://www.forbes.com/sites/tommybeer/2021/02/10/nearly-1-in-4-republicans-definitely-wont-get-covid-19-vaccine-survey-finds/?sh=4269be9e2b68> 


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 
<https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/22/bill-gates-denies-conspiracy-theories-that-say-he-wants-to-use-coronavirus-vaccines-to-implant-tracking-devices.html>, 
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 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/12/03/should-prisoners-get-covid-19-vaccines-early> 
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, 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/12/18/1-in-5-prisoners-in-the-u-s-has-had-covid-19> 
according to data compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated 
Press.

Correctional officers can bring the virus home from work and infect 
family members, too 
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/04/01/as-a-mom-working-in-a-prison-i-worry-about-bringing-coronavirus-home>. 
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 
the vaccine.

“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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