Health experts had warned that getting sufficient vaccines to prisons would be a logistical challenge. But a new slate of difficulties — from a deadlier COVID-19 variant to anti-vax misinformation — has slowed vaccination rates in prisons, particularly among corrections staff.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports just 22 percent of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections guards were vaccinated as of mid-June, according to voluntary department reports. But over 75 percent of the people incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s 24 state prisons have received their shots.
An April report by the Prison Policy Initiative found a similar trend nationwide: designated a priority group, prison staff have refused the vaccine in vast numbers, leaving entire prison populations — and surrounding communities — at risk. According to the report, 48 percent of prison staff members nationwide had received at least one dose, although in some states rates remained in the teens.
John Eckenrode, the president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, pushed for the state’s 11,000 corrections officers to get early access to vaccines. Eckenrode, who said three officers died during the pandemic and around 3,900 contracted COVID-19, explained officers’ low vaccination rates to WHYY.
“I think that no matter what kind of demographic you look at, there’s vaccine hesitancy among all groups,” he said. “[The vaccine] was approved under experimental conditions, and I believe that it should be an individual choice.”
Others say misleading posts on social media are making guards reluctant to get their shots. A New York guard told The Philadelphia Inquirer “a sense of ‘I don’t want people to think I’m weak’ machismo and right-wing politics” are driving the hesitancy among officers.
That rationale aligns with the tactics commentators are deploying on right-wing networks, including Fox News. According to The New York Times, high-profile hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have been spouting a stream of falsehoods — that vaccines are dangerous, people should refuse them and public authorities are inappropriately endorsing inoculation — even as the Delta variant fuels outbreaks.
The more contagious and now-dominant variant is especially dangerous in prisons, where cramped conditions make social distancing and proper hygiene nearly impossible, according to Josh Manson, a researcher at the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project. The vaccine appears to protect recipients from the variant. So for guards or inmates in overpopulated prisons, the Delta variant can rapidly sicken unvaccinated people.
“You’ll see that the vaccination rate for incarcerated people is higher than for staff,” Manson told Verywell Health. “That is not because incarcerated people have had easier access, but because staff refusal rates have been high.”
Regardless of the reasons driving the high refusal rates, the consequences are dire.
Unvaccinated officers travel between the prisons that employ them and the surrounding communities, bringing the virus with them, according to Anne Spaulding, an associate professor in epidemiology at Emory University.
Sick officers can also cause staff shortages, which reduce the amount of programming for incarcerated people. “It’s going to affect the mental health of those incarcerated, who already have restricted lives,” Spaulding said.
The Crime Report has covered COVID-19’s consequences for prisoners. This new roadblock — low vaccination rates among staff as the Delta variant spreads — has the potential to prolong the intense isolation prisoners faced during the pandemic. According to Kirstin Cornnell, social services director with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, lockdowns caused by sick officers would likely suspend family visitation.
Despite physical and mental health concerns, states haven’t required corrections officers to get vaccinated. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a May news conference he would urge the state’s corrections officers union to persuade its members to get shots, according to PBS. Prison workers, many of whom are suing for hazard pay, have yet to be required to get vaccinated.
Health experts agree that their low vaccination rate threatens to worsen the dangerous requirements of their jobs.
“We have really serious concerns about how low the rate of staff vaccination is,” said Cornnell. “This increases tension in an already stressful situation.”
Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.