Prisoners Are Sitting Ducks For Covid

Entering the third year of the COVID-19 epidemic, inmates jailed in U.S. jails are sitting ducks for the ever-mutating virus, due to their low access to health care and their inability to socially dissociate in particular. So the resistance of detention facility workers to vaccines—turning guards into vectors of transmission to bring the disease into the lockups where they work—is the biggest threat to the health and well-being of prisoners.

Even in the face of vaccination mandates to recalcitrant prison and jail workers, the rate of vaccinated staff in most jurisdictions has risen due only to the danger of fire. Ironically, prisoners often have greater immunization rates than the personnel paid to safeguard their safety.

Covid Stats

Data about vaccination rates of detention facility workers are sparse. Some 40 percent of states do not disclose statistics and yet others do not track immunizations outside the prison setting. Some states such as Florida and Georgia have stopped tracking COVID-19 in their prison systems at all. The UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Project reminds out that this low data availability makes comparing guard vaccination rates to prisoner immunization rates imprecise. With that said, let’s check the states that are publishing statistics.

“There is no reason that incarcerated people—who often cannot social distance but have chosen to receive vaccines in large numbers—should pay the price for staff refusals, either through suspended privileges or through needless infection and death.”

UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project states

Michigan, California and Illinois

Pie Chart Of Michigan Prisoners With Covid

In the last week of January 2022, around 5,500 prisoners in Michigan—15 percent of the total—had active illnesses, a number nearly the same as all adult Michiganders. Of those affected, 63 percent had gotten at least one jab. A third had also been enhanced. The state Department of Corrections (DOC) noted it was not the worst positivity rate observed for prisoners during the epidemic, but spokesperson Chris Gautz revealed that 75 workers were testing positive per day, a larger number than previously seen. Prison personnel in Michigan are not forced to get vaccinated, and the state is not keeping data of employee immunization rates.

Inmates In Calif. Prison Cleaning
Inmates in Calif. Prison cleaning

California reported a total of 4,938 new active cases among prison personnel in the week ending February 7, 2022. At least 14,507 employees who work for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had tested positive for COVID-19 since December 1, 2021. On the state Health Care Services webpage, this caution appeared in very small print: “While the vaccine is not required for all CDCR and CCHCS [California Correctional Health Care Services] staff at this time, it is strongly encouraged to protect yourself and everyone around you.”

Gov. Gavin Newsome
Gov. Gavin Newsome

Against this backdrop, Gov. Gavin Newsome (D) sided with the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association (CCPOA) to fight a federal judge’s order that all prison workers must be vaccinated, which was issued by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on September 27, 2021. See: Plata v. Newsom, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 190446 (N.D. Cal). (N.D. Cal.).

The U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit then delayed that decision on November 27, 2021, pushing out the vaccine deadline from January 12, 2022, until any time after a hearing is planned in March 2022. See: Plata v. Newsom, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 35098 (9th Cir). (9th Cir.).


Meanwhile, on December 31, 2021, the Los Angeles Times highlighted that CDCR was not keeping up with employee testing: The agency’s more than 10,000 unvaccinated staffers should be tested two times a week, but data shows one-third were noncompliant from mid-October to mid-November. Opponents of the vaccine requirement were seeing the dismal reality of understaffing they warned of, but not from resignations: In the last week of January 2022, 21 state jails each had over 100 guards out sick with COVID-19.

Vaccination in Illinois

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) decreed that state workers in congregate-care settings must be vaccinated by early October 2021. But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the powerful union representing DOC’s about 13,000 guards, vehemently rejected that demand as excessively “rigid.” In the face of this, Pritzker succumbed and delayed the deadline to late November 2021 while the matter was arbitrated.

Gov. J.b. Pritzker
Gov. J. B. Pritzker

By mid-January 2022, as the Omicron strain of the disease spread, 3,300 prisoners and approximately 1,100 staff members in Illinois prisons were sick, with the deaths of one prisoner and two staff members recorded during the last wave. Only 12 percent of the guards have had booster shots, which are vital in the fight against Omicron. In contrast, 44 percent of state prisoners had been boosted by the end of 2021.

In a judgment on December 31, 2021, Arbitrator Edwin Benn ruled against AFSCME and set a deadline for personnel at DOC’s 51 locations to be vaccinated or provide a religious exemption by January 31, 2022. Meanwhile, DOC’s staff inoculation rate rose from 44 percent in August 2021 to 64 percent at the end of December, closer to the 75 percent rate for state prisoners.


Walla Walla State Penitentiary
Walla Walla State Penitentiary

Washington’s DOC stated 92 percent of its personnel have been vaccinated by October 2021. At the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, 89.5 percent of the employees took all the shots by October 25, 2021, when 49 guards had been sacked from the penitentiary for violating the vaccine mandate of Gov. Jay Inslee (D) (D). Just 10 granted religious or medical exemptions, after most of the remaining 124 exemption requests initially filed were withdrawn. Only 350 people departed or were fired state-wide, representing 4.5 percent of DOC employees who left their roles involuntarily.

In King County, where Seattle is located, the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention lost over 24 workers with another 35 being terminated by mid-January 2022.


Maine Gov. Janet Mills
Maine Gov. Janet Mills

On the other coast, the vaccine mandate of Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) does not apply to individuals working inside jails and prisons, not even those who provide medical care. Mills’ office has not gone public with an explanation. On February 9, 2022, the state DOC Weekly Dashboard indicated 81.4 percent of adult prisoners were vaccinated. The vaccination percentage for correctional personnel was 67 percent when last reported by the Kennebec Journal on October 9, 2021.


Nevada’s emergency vaccine mandate produced a 12 percent rise in the number of corrections staff getting vaccinated between October 2021—when 55 percent had petitioned for an exemption, the majority citing religious beliefs—and November 2021, when 830 guards were disciplined for not complying. By then 76 percent of corrections employees had been partially or fully vaccinated. A permanent requirement was vetoed by the Republican-led state legislature in December 2021, therefore the emergency mandate expired in early January 2022. State law forbids the Department of Health from issuing another emergency mandate.

New Jersy

Nj Imates Vaccinated

In New Jersey as of February 1, 2022, over 62 percent of the prisoner population was fully vaccinated. Yet only 40 percent of state prison guards had been vaccinated, reflecting the anti-vax stance of the state Policeman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), which sued for a restraining order in response to an executive order by Gov. Phil Murphy (D) that correctional staff must obtain all three doses. PBA head Pat Colligan worried that the governor’s directive would drive hundreds of guards to flee rather than get vaccinated, increasing an existing labor shortage and forcing the remaining guards to work compulsory overtime.

Compulsory overtime requirements are seen nationwide and severely impact correctional staff morale and wellness. But mandates have also driven immunization rates higher for prison guards. Still in most states with publicly accessible statistics, prisoners have greater immunization rates than the persons employed to defend their health and safety. Guards, mainly right-leaning politically and often prone to misinformation and conspiracy theories, continue to reject vaccine mandates and exploit religious and medical exemptions to escape the job. Their unions continue litigation to lift regulations meant to aid persons in congregate care settings avoid infection and death.

Source: PLN, Bergen Record, Champaign News-Gazette, Chicago Tribune, Courthouse News, Davis Vanguard, KTNV, Kennebec Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Marshall Project, Nevada Current, Prison Policy Initiative, UCLA