SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Through California Attorney General Rob Bonta earlier this week, Governor Gavin Newsom appealed a federal judge’s order mandating COVID-19 vaccines for California prison employees, with the state’s prison guard union being one of his top backers in the recall election.
Newsom and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association have, for months, resisted the idea of a COVID vaccine mandate for those working behind the walls of the golden state’s correctional facilities — even as the virus quickly spreads through them. The governor’s resistance to vaccinations for prison guards comes as an unusual limit to the liberal governor’s largely pro-vaccine stance, which was perhaps shoehorned by his cozy relationship with prison guards — the CCPOA donated $1.75M to Newsom to help fight the recall, making the group his sixth largest donor.
US District Judge Jon S. Tigar said in his order mandating the vaccinations that over 50,000 prisoners have been infected with COVID, with over 240 dying since the pandemic began. Countless more have been hospitalized and some even suffer long-term effects, sometimes known as long COVID. CDCR data shows that over 20,000 prison employees have tested positive for the virus, with 39 dying as a result. Over 200 staff members have tested positive in the last two weeks.
The overall staff vaccination rate in across California’s prisons is 55%, with some facilities dipping into the 30s and one even sinking as low as 18%. 42% of guards have been vaccinated, and 75% of prisoners and healthcare workers have been vaccinated. Unvaccinated staff have been subjected to weekly tests since July, pursuant to California Department of Public Health policy.
State officials have taken many precautions short of mandating shots, including the distribution of masks, facility disinfection, quarantining, and transfer restrictions. They’ve gone a step further by trying to implement cash incentives, and have even established one-on-one vaccine counseling meetings to convince hesitant employees to voluntarily get the vaccine, but just 5% of the over 5,000 employees who attended the meetings agreed to be inoculated. The 4,385 others signed formal papers declining to be vaccinated.
Tigar wrote in his order that, despite the state’s noble efforts, the precautions and incentives have shown no evidence to boost the voluntary vaccination rate among prison guards and staff. Tigar said that a mandate “would lower the risk of preventable death and serious medical consequences among incarcerated persons” and that “no one has identified any remedy that will produce anything close to the same benefit.”
The federal judge said that the state has created a “substantial risk of harm” to California’s prisoners and has violated their eighth amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
The lawsuit resulting in judge Tigar’s order was originally a class-action suit filed against then-governor Gray Davis by several California prisoners, led by Marciano Plata, who accused officials of acting in “deliberate indifference” to their medical needs through an inadequate prison healthcare system. That lawsuit has since evolved to focus on vaccines as a new health risk takes the US by storm, causing over 700,000 deaths since its inception, hitting prisons all over the country with extreme force.
A federally appointed receiver who has overseen medical care in California’s prisons since 2005 as a result of Plata’s lawsuit, now J. Clark Kelso, filed a report in August recommending mandatory vaccines for prison staff as a “public health necessity.”
“A mandatory vaccination policy is medically necessary for those individuals who regularly go in and out of CDCR facilities — or receive visitors to those facilities — and so cannot be effectively quarantined with each visit,” Kelso wrote. “That group includes institutional staff and other CDCR employees who enter institutions, and incarcerated persons who choose to work outside an institution or receive in‐person visitation.”
Judge Tigar’s mandate also affects prisoners who want to work outside of their prison facility, as well as ones who want to accept in-person visitation requests. He hasn’t set a specific date by which he wants the state to comply with the ruling, and that date will instead be set by receiver Kelso and state attorneys.