In summary

Although most state prison workers are refusing vaccines, Gov. Gavin Newsom says he won’t make them mandatory.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration have no plans to make COVID-19 vaccinations an employment requirement for California prison guards, the governor said during a press conference today.

Newsom indicated that he doesn’t plan on getting ahead of the powerful California prison guards union by mandating vaccinations — saying instead he’s relying on the union to convince more officers to become vaccinated.

“We have no further announcement to make as it relates to whether or not we’re going to mandate those vaccines,” Newsom said when asked whether his administration would require guards to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.  

As CalMatters reported this week, most California correctional officers have refused to be vaccinated. In a recent class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oakland, attorneys for prisoners filed a statement asking the state to make vaccinations mandatory for prison employees.

Other legal experts have said the state has that option. “California courts have long recognized the state’s authority to mandate vaccination, wrote Berkeley Law lecturer Stephen Duvernay in a recent analysis. The University of California and Cal State systems are mandating COVID vaccines for their employees and students before they return in the fall.

Using education and incentives such as exempting vaccinated guards from weekly COVID-19 tests, the prison guard union has tried to garner compliance with honey rather than with vinegar. As of today, 48% of employees have been vaccinated — 5% higher than earlier this week.

“We just want to give the opportunity to build on the work that Glen (Staile, president of California Correctional Peace Officers Association) and his executive board…have advanced,” the governor said. 

“The governor’s approach is a reasonable one — persuasion is going to work better than a mandate,” said Staile.

While 71% state prisoners have accepted at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, state prison workers and the corrections department’s staff as a whole lag behind. Since last summer, the coronavirus has swept through the state prisons, leaving at least 222 people dead and infecting more than 50,000 prisoners. Guards were also infected. Throughout the system, more than 16,000 prison staff have tested positive for the virus, and 26 employees have died, according to the data. Currently, there are 154 active COVID-19 cases among staff. 

“One very important mechanism to prevent outbreaks is also to stop the introduction of COVID-19 into prisons and jails,” said Elizabeth T. Chin, Stanford University doctoral candidate and lead author on a new study about vaccination rates among California Prisoners. “We are definitely looking at vaccination levels within the staff. And…it’s an important thing to keep promoting to try to get staff vaccination rates as high as possible.”

For one guard, Gov. Newsom’s statement was music to his ears. 

“It’s good that he won’t require vaccines,” he said. The officer, who says he contracted COVID-19 months ago and does not plan on being vaccinated, hopes the state goes a bit further and also stops mandating COVID tests and requiring masks for unvaccinated prison workers. Like the other prison and parole workers who spoke to CalMatters, he insisted on anonymity, saying he was not authorized to speak to the press.

“Most officers hate wearing them,” said the Norco officer who’s been a guard for over a decade. “Most don’t wear them correctly, or if they do, it’s only around the administration.”

Lax protocols and mask-wearing are not new. During the height of the pandemic, the Office of the Inspector General dinged the state prisons for not doing more to enforce the mask requirements and discipline officers who violate it. The report seemed to have made a difference, according to one guard in the High Desert State Prison. “We are constantly harassed at work about masks,” he said. “Even outdoors by ourselves. It’s horrible.” 

“It is simply a matter of being told that if you are vaccinated you still have to wear a mask all day,” said the High Desert guard. “The compliance with vaccinations would go through the roof if this policy changed.”

A state parole officer who supports requiring vaccinations for prison and parole workers nonetheless understands the governor’s political dilemma. “I can see why he (Newsom) doesn’t want to do it because the union will get involved,” the officer said, “and it will be a battle between the union and the governor.”

But COVID-19 is not going away. Earlier this week, at least one Southern California parole office had to shut down and be cleaned. Another COVID exposure.

Our health care reporting is supported by the California Health Care Foundation and Blue Shield of California Foundation.

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Byrhonda Lyons is a national award-winning investigative reporter for CalMatters. She writes and produces compelling stories about California’s court and criminal system. Her reporting has uncovered...