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COVID-19 behind bars: Tough indeed on inmates, officers

San Quentin Prison, where a coronavirus outbreak was reported last year. (Photo: Mark R, via Shutterstock)

For Cristina Garcia, there’s something unsettling about the idea that an unvaccinated person, confined to a prison cell, could be exposed to the corona virus because a guard or other state employee had declined an opportunity to be vaccinated.

Assemblymember Garcia, D-Bell, said as much Monday during her first hearing as chair of the subcommittee that oversees the $13-billion Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations.

An Inspector General report found that CDCR may have needlessly put lives at risk through a series of hasty and ill-considered inmate transfers

Why, she wondered, wouldn’t someone who declines vaccination be reassigned to duty that kept them away from prisoners?

Because, she was told, employees have the right to make healthcare choices, and reassigning them for making those choices could be perceived as a punitive action by workers or their bargaining units.

Garcia, who was appointed chair of the subcommittee less than two weeks ago, based much of her questioning on an Inspector General report that found CDCR may have needlessly put lives at risk through a series of hasty and ill-considered inmate transfers.

“I had some concerns going in,” she said of last  week’s hearing. “And my concerns grew with the answers, or lack of answers, I was getting.”

Her suggestion that vaccine objectors be reassigned away from prisoners was pushed aside by corrections officials.

“Now is not the time to start for example saying, ‘If you don’t [get vaccinated] you’re going to move,’” said Clark Kelso, who was given oversight in 2009 by federal regulators frustrated by the state’s seeming inability to improve its prison healthcare system.

CDCR has about 57,000 employees and fewer than half (24,000) have received the first of their two COVID vaccines. About 27,000 of its 90,000 prisoners are in the same situation.

Kelso and Dr. Joseph Bick, the department’s health director, told Garcia and her subcommittee that an internal survey about vaccine perception found a surprising number of employees who said they weren’t ready to roll up their sleeves.

“They found that about half the people want the vaccine now, and another quarter said ‘I’d like to see my buddy here go first but I want it.’” — Joseph Bick

A SurveyMonkey poll on the CDCR homepage asks participants whether they get a flu shot; whether their children are vaccinated for mumps; whether they had concerns; and whether they would be willing to receive the vaccine when it was their turn. In several places, respondents were given blank space to list their concerns.

The results showed that prison employees hold views along the same spectrum of trust and disbelief as the general population.

Bick told Garcia their polling found that only about half of respondents were ready for a shot. Some took a wait-and-see attitude, and some questioned whether the pandemic was real at all.

“They found that about half the people want the vaccine now, and another quarter said ‘I’d like to see my buddy here go first but I want it,’” Bick told Garcia during the hearing, according to The Fresno Bee.

As of Feb. 9, CDCR reported 1,393 COVID cases. The pandemic has claimed the lives of 25 employees and 207 inmates.

In any event, both Bick and Kelso were cool to the idea of separating employees based on their inoculation status.

Garcia told Capitol Weekly she’ll accept that answer — for now.

“I’m going to let them know that I’m going to start off trying to be your partner,” she said, “and if that doesn’t work, then I have no problem being your adversary.”

As of Feb. 9, CDCR reported 1,393 COVID cases. The pandemic has claimed the lives of 25 employees and 207 inmates, the most recent succumbing on Feb. 9.

Officials said there also were 1,383 active cases among the inmate population and 38 prisoners receiving care at offsite hospitals.

Garcia is scheduled to hold her next subcommittee hearing Feb. 22. She hopes vaccination rates will rise and new cases decline by then, otherwise she may again push administrators to think outside the box.

“The pandemic requires us to step outside the usual,” she said. “The status quo is not appropriate at this time.”


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