State attorneys representing the prison’s health care system didn’t directly address the request, instead reiterating educational and marketing efforts to encourage more staff to get vaccinated.
In a statement emailed to CalMatters, a spokesperson from California Correctional Health Care Services, which provides health care inside California prisons, said prisons are beefing up their outreach and “providing open vaccine clinics over the next couple weeks to assist our staff in furthering their vaccine efforts.”
Advocates say vaccine reluctance among guards and other prison staff jeopardizes the health of fellow workers and people held in prison who have no control over their proximity to others. And they point out a precedent: The University of California is requiring all students, faculty and staff on its campuses be vaccinated before returning this fall.
“People in prison and the staff, frankly, are at greater risk than college students and people who work for the university and colleges,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. “So if they can do it, I don’t see a reason why the prisons can’t do it.”
It’s a step the state isn’t prepared to take absent new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or court intervention, according to the emailed statement from the prison health services spokesperson.
“There’s hesitancy on the part of everybody, including the judge, to instill mandate,” said Hadar Aviram, professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. “There isn’t actually a legal problem to say to people, ‘If you don’t get vaccinated, you have no business working (in state prisons).' ”
But for many prison employees, making vaccination a job requirement would be a step too far.
“A lot of us have already had COVID and recovered, so we don’t see the point in getting the vaccine,” said a correctional officer who tested positive in December 2020 at Norco, where 38% of employees have had COVID. “I have the natural antibodies. I get sick every year from something at work, so I figured it’d be a matter of time. I was amazed I lasted all the way to December.”
Many prison workers, like many Americans, aren’t sold on being vaccinated against COVID. Some cite fears about the possible side effects of the vaccine, others contend that they are protected by antibodies developed from prior COVID illness, and still others say they simply don’t believe in vaccines.
“About half of my unit is vaccinated,” said a correctional officer in Northern California. “The others ... are waiting to see what’s going on and what the long-term effects (of the vaccine) are going to be."