Prison Guards Across the Nation Refuse to Take Vaccine, Despite Prisons Frequently Being the Site of COVID-19 Outbreaks

Joe Jurado
·4 min read

There was a lot of talk about Black people being resistant towards getting the vaccine because the U.S. government has a history of medical fuckery when it comes to Black bodies. There’s less talk about a similar hesitancy towards getting the vaccine among prison employees, who have refused getting vaccinated at an alarming rate.

A report by AP News and The Marshall Project has found that prison employees across the country are frequently rejecting the vaccine at higher rates than prisoners. Some of the reasons prison employees have given for rejecting the vaccine include concerns about its effectiveness and side effects; some cited debunked conspiracy theories peddled by far-right websites; and others simply have a lack of faith in the prison system given how poorly they have handled mitigating the effects of the virus.

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This is concerning for a multitude of reasons: Prisons are natural hotspots for the virus, as the cramped living conditions, questionable hygiene practices, and an inability to effectively distance makes it easier to transmit the virus. FCI Miami, a federal prison in Miami, experienced two outbreaks last year. The first, which happened last July, resulted in over 400 of the prison’s 852 incarcerated people contracting the virus. In December, another 100 people also wound up contracting the virus.

Despite that, less than half of the prison’s 240 employees have been fully vaccinated, despite the vaccine being made available to them for well over a month.

From AP News:

Part of the resistance to the vaccine is widespread misinformation among correctional staff, said Brian Dawe, a former correctional officer and national director of One Voice United, a policy and advocacy group for officers. A majority of people in law enforcement lean right, Dawe said. “They get a lot of their information from the right-wing media outlets,” he said. “A lot of them believe you don’t have to wear masks. That it’s like the flu.” National polls have shown that Republicans without college degrees are the most resistant to the vaccine.

Several correctional officers in Florida, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to talk to the press, said many of their colleagues believe that the vaccine could give them the virus. Some have latched onto debunked conspiracy theories circulating on social media, the officers said, believing the vaccine contains tracking devices produced by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, who has donated to coronavirus treatment research. (The vaccine does not contain tracking devices.) Others believe the vaccine was hastily produced without enough time to understand the long-term side effects.

“I wouldn’t care if I worked in a dorm with every inmate having COVID, I still wouldn’t get (vaccinated),” said a correctional sergeant who has worked for the Florida Department of Corrections for more than a decade. “If I’m wearing a mask, gloves, washing my hands and being careful — I’d still feel better working like that than putting the vaccine in my body.”

These attitudes have had a mild beneficial effect for those incarcerated. The vaccine spoils fast, so instead of wasting vaccines that guards may refuse, they’ve been offered to prisoners. For those incarcerated with preexisting conditions, getting the vaccine can be the difference between life or death. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to factor into some of the decision-making of some prison workers when it comes to the vaccine.

You might be asking, “Why doesn’t the prison just make them get vaccinated?” Well, legally they can’t. Unfortunately, it seems that some correctional officers have to learn firsthand how debilitating and devastating the virus’s impact can be before seeing the need to get vaccinated.

Kareen Troitino, employee and union president for FCI Miami, told AP News that some of the staunchest anti-vaxxers in the union changed their minds real quick after experiencing the severe effects of the virus for themselves. “They have called me begging to have the vaccine reserved for them upon their return,” Troitino said. “A few faced life and death and are totally devastated by their experience.”

I just don’t get why it takes learning lessons the hard way in order to make a positive decision for yourself. There’s informed skepticism, and then there’s putting the lives of both yourself and others at risk.