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As COVID rates rise, mandate vaccine for prison staff

Data from UCLA Law project shows vaccination rates are low among prison staff. And the incarcerated are paying the price.

In early July, Julie Anderson got up at 3 a.m. to make the long drive from suburban Chicago to a central Illinois prison to see her son, who is serving a 60-year sentence.

When she got there, she offered the guard at the front desk her vaccine card, assuming there was a need for proof of vaccination to enter the visiting room. The guard seemed  surprised, Anderson stated during an interview. As she recalled, it was as if the prison official was seeing a visitor vaccination card for the first time. 

Anderson’s son had been vaccinated, along with about 70% of Illinois’ incarcerated population – but most staff across Illinois prisons have not been vaccinated. Statewide, just 41% of Illinois prison workers have been fully vaccinated, compared with about 60% of adults in the state.

“My son was not sentenced to die in prison,” Anderson said. “But now I live in constant fear that he will die of COVID behind bars.” 

On Aug. 4, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a vaccine mandate for state prison employees, a move that all governors should now follow. Without mandates, the largely unvaccinated people who work in prisons are likely to become a primary source of viral spread in the community – not to mention a possible source of new variants.

The low rates of vaccination among prison staff in Illinois are emblematic of a much larger national problem.

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Across the United States, unvaccinated corrections staff are helping to fuel a public health emergency. In the majority of states that report this data, fewer than half of prison staff have gotten a shot, according to data collected by the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. This is a particularly alarming fact considering that at least 114,000 prison workers have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, at least three times the rate of the overall population. 

In recent weeks, governors in California and New York have announced that all state employees, including state prison workers, would be required to submit proof of vaccination or face weekly testing. Following suit, New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania joined the list of states requiring vaccines or weekly testing for those working inside prisons.

For more than eight months now, far too many prison staff nationwide, who received priority access to vaccines, have proved unwilling to get vaccinated. It’s time for elected officials to step in to avoid another wave of outbreaks inside their prisons.

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In the absence of mandates, incarcerated people will continue to pay the price for staff’s stubborn refusal. As a result of the threat posed by high numbers of unvaccinated workers, Anderson said, her fully vaccinated son has been on lockdown for more than 20 hours per day for the past 18 months. At the time of publication for this column, the number of COVID-19 cases among incarcerated people in Illinois was close to 100; among prison staff that number topped 120. 

Lockdowns are the primary strategy prisons have employed to control outbreaks, and they can be torturous for people inside.

Across the country, visitation remains limited and, where allowed, takes place with masks behind plexiglass shields. For nearly 18 months, all educational and recreational activities have been suspended, and incarcerated people have had few opportunities to get out of their prison cells.

Incarcerated people have already suffered from the inaction of prison officials. More than 2,700 people have died from COVID-19 in state and federal prisons.

The increase in deaths is also a reflection of the dangerous and inhumane conditions faced by the nearly 1.8 million people – a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Latinx – that already existed in American prisons long before the pandemic struck.

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For more than a year, too many politicians have deflected responsibility for managing this crisis behind bars, allowing prison officials to set their own rules for managing the pandemic. Multiple lawsuits and a California Office of the Inspector General investigation have revealed prison administrators ignoring public health imperatives. 

As prison staff continue to refuse vaccines en masse, it’s increasingly clear they haven’t learned their lesson. The only remaining question is whether our elected officials have. 

Amanda Klonsky is a research and policy fellow at the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project. You can find her at or on Twitter: @amandaklonsky1.

Erika Tyagi is a data science fellow at the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project. You can find her on Twitter: @erikatyagi.

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