From the outset, COVID-19 exposed America as a society that is more than willing to sacrifice its most vulnerable people. Now, as workers challenge vaccine mandates meant to protect those relegated to the bottom rungs of society, the most vulnerable people will suffer once again.
Last week, the union representing correctional officers in Pennsylvania’s state prisons became one of the latest groups to officially oppose a vaccine or testing mandate. On Friday, they filed a complaint in Commonwealth Court seeking a preliminary injunction to stop an order put in place by Gov. Tom Wolf — a Democrat — requiring prison guards and other state workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. The guards say they should not have to be tested weekly unless inmates and prison vendors are, too.
The lawsuit spells it out this way: “The commonwealth’s failure to apply the ‘vaccinate or weekly test’ rule to all individuals in the congregate setting unnecessarily increases the risk to the health and safety” of union members.
Interesting argument, but I’m not buying it. I believe the only people risking the health and safety of union members are the union members themselves.
By refusing vaccination, and then fighting to skip out on COVID-19 testing, these state employees are not only risking their own health. They’re imposing the consequences of their decisions on a vulnerable population. Testing prisoners and vendors doesn’t stop unvaccinated guards from contracting COVID-19. It simply allows those guards to sidestep a vaccination mandate the president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association derided as “a slap in the face” while members expressed their strong opposition. More importantly, it allows them to continue to contract and spread COVID-19 among a population of incarcerated people who are unable to leave the facilities, and thus are particularly vulnerable.
There are those who believe that as convicted criminals, state inmates deserve any condition, no matter how bad, that comes from their imprisonment. I don’t, especially after watching 26 wrongfully convicted Philadelphians get released since December of 2016. Twenty-four of those innocent people were Black, which makes sense, since 47% of the state’s 37,000 prisoners were Black as of July 30, even though Black people make up about 12% of Pennsylvania’s population.
That means this is not just a major health issue. It is also an issue of racial justice. In a criminal system where Black people are disproportionately imprisoned, and wrongfully convicted far more often than their white counterparts, I’m forced to ask a simple question: How many more wrongfully convicted Black prisoners are sitting inside, waiting to be infected with a virus that could very well give them a death sentence for a crime they didn’t commit?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that with COVID-19, that death sentence would not be carried out by a judge or a jury. However, it could be carried out by correctional officers who pass on the disease after refusing to be vaccinated or tested.
This is not to ignore that correctional officers have suffered their own losses due to COVID-19. According to the union representing the officers, almost 3,700 of its members had contracted COVID-19 as of early August, and in their view the governor is somehow at fault.
In a letter to Gov. Wolf, Union president John Eckenrode blamed “woefully inconsistent vaccination/testing/masking policy by this administration in our state prisons” for the correctional officers who were adversely affected by the virus, arguing that “thousands of our members already have been infected, due to your inaction.” But then the union president said he was instructing legal counsel to challenge the Governor’s latest attempt at action: a vaccine mandate.
So here we are, at a moment where these correctional officers claim the governor hasn’t adequately protected them from COVID. Yet they seem to be taking every possible measure to avoid protecting themselves.
I believe they are wrong.
Everyone who works with a vulnerable population should be vaccinated. From teachers who work with students who are not yet eligible for vaccination, to hospital workers who are exposed to those with compromised immune systems, to prison guards who work with incarcerated people in a closed environment.
If our prison guards want to work without getting vaccinated, they are well within their rights to do so, but they should be prepared to find employment somewhere else.