Entrance to Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility
The entrance to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa is shown in this undated photo. (Angela Carone/KPBS)

His answer was crystal clear: “No. Never will.” That’s how a prison guard at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco feels about taking the COVID-19 vaccine, and he’s not alone. 

There’s the Sacramento-area correctional officer with more than 15 years on the job who “doesn’t believe in” vaccinations. A sergeant from Northern California with eight years of experience who “appreciates” prisons offering employees the vaccine, but still doesn’t feel comfortable taking it. A prison psychologist from Southern California who feels protected because of having had a prior case of COVID.

All, who spoke to CalMatters only on condition of anonymity, are among the 57% of California prison employees skipping free COVID vaccinations offered on the job as of May 10, according to data from the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. Experts don’t think it’s common that those workers chose to be vaccinated anyplace less convenient. 

As California pursues herd immunity — or something close to it — some 37,000 state prison workers remain unvaccinated. In 30 of 35 institutions, less than half of employees are fully vaccinated. Currently, less than 3% of staff are waiting on their second jab, according to the statewide data.

Active COVID cases inside California prisons have slowly declined since peaking in late Dec. 2020, around the time the system rolled out its voluntary vaccination program for inmates and staff. In the past two weeks, state data shows just 14 COVID cases reported among California prisoners — but 108 cases among prison staff.

While the state’s prodding may slowly boost the staff vaccination rate, critics say urging isn’t enough.

In a recent statement filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland as part of a class action suit that forced California’s prison healthcare under court control, attorneys for prisoners asked that staff vaccinations become mandatory. “We believe that the time has come for the Receiver and (the corrections department) to protect the interests of the incarcerated population, their employees and the community by requiring that all staff be vaccinated,” wrote plaintiffs’ attorneys from the Prison Law Office. 

State attorneys representing the prison’s healthcare system didn’t directly address the request, instead reiterating educational and marketing efforts to encourage more staff to get vaccinated. 

In a statement emailed to CalMatters, a spokesperson from California Correctional Health Care Services, which provides healthcare inside California prisons, said prisons are beefing up their outreach and “providing open vaccine clinics over the next couple weeks to assist our staff in furthering their vaccine efforts.”

Advocates say vaccine reluctance among guards and other prison staff jeopardizes the health of fellow workers and people held in prison who have no control over their proximity to others. And they point out a precedent: The University of California is requiring all students, faculty, and staff on its campuses be vaccinated before returning this fall. 

“People in prison and the staff, frankly, are at greater risk than college students and people who work for the university and colleges,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. “So if they can do it, I don’t see a reason why the prisons can’t do it.”

It’s a step the state isn’t prepared to take absent new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control or court intervention, according to the emailed statement from the prison health services spokesperson. 

“There’s hesitancy on the part of everybody, including the judge, to instill mandate,” said Hadar Aviram, professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. “There isn’t actually a legal problem to say to people, ‘If you don’t get vaccinated, you have no business working (in state prisons).”

But for many prison employees, making vaccination a job requirement would be a step too far.

“A lot of us have already had COVID and recovered, so we don’t see the point in getting the vaccine,” said a correctional officer who tested positive in Dec. 2020 at Norco, where 38% of employees have had COVID. “I have the natural antibodies. I get sick every year from something at work, so I figured it’d be a matter of time. I was amazed I lasted all the way to December.”

Many prison workers, like many Americans, aren’t sold on being vaccinated against COVID. Some cite fears about the possible side effects of the vaccine, others contend that they are protected by antibodies developed from prior COVID illness, and still others say they simply don’t believe in vaccines.

“About half of my unit is vaccinated,” said a correctional officer in Northern California. “The others…are waiting to see what’s going on and what the long-term effects (of the vaccine) are going to be,” she said. 

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. 

“This is not a whim,” said Aviram, the Hastings law professor. “The fact that there’s very few cases in prison now isn’t because we won the battle over the virus. It’s because the virus won. We ended up reaching herd immunity in some prisons the tragic way — because people just got sick and died.”

With the virus spreading among employees, prison officials have asked union officials to help them get more people vaccinated.

Using incentives, education and behavioral science methods, the union launched “an aggressive campaign in partnership with state government, strongly urging all our members to get vaccinated,” said union president Glen Stailey. That includes videos showing union board members being vaccinated, and consulting with UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy on how to convince more workers to get the vaccine.

It’s a push that hasn’t gone unnoticed by staff, who say the fact that fully vaccinated employees can skip weekly COVID tests are influencing some employees to say, “maybe I will … get the vaccine, whether or not they want it,” said the veteran correctional officer from the Sacramento area who doesn’t believe in vaccinations — and says the union’s marketing has failed to change her mind. “It’s just one of those things where, you know, it makes it a little bit easier for them at work or wherever they are.”

Of the more than 26,000 department employees who have opted for full vaccination, many still say they are uncomfortable encouraging their colleagues to do the same.

“I’ve been vaccinated,” said a rehabilitation specialist who works in Southern California. “I don’t have a problem doing that. But I also don’t have a problem with other people not getting it.”

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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