SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A federal judge on Monday ordered all employees entering California jails to be vaccinated or given a religious or medical exemption, as he attempts to avert another coronavirus outbreak like the one that killed 28 inmates and a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison last year.
Inmates who wish to visit in person or who work outside of prisons, including inmate firefighters, should also be fully immunized or have religious or medical exemption.
The prison guards’ union said it could appeal the warrant.
More than 50,000 California inmates have been infected and at least 240 have died since the start of the pandemic.
âEveryone agrees that a mandatory staff vaccination policy would reduce the risk of preventable death and serious medical consequences for those in prison,â wrote US District Judge Jon Tigar. “And no one has identified a cure that will produce anything close to the same benefit.”
He said state officials “have taken many laudable steps” but are taking action “because they refuse to do what the clear evidence demands.”
Tigar has broad authority to direct medical care in California prisons in a long-standing lawsuit for poor health care. He accepted the recommendation of his federal receiver, J. Clark Kelso, who has operational control.
“Once the virus enters an institution, it is very difficult to contain, and the dominant route by which it enters a prison is through infected staff,” said the judge.
As of Monday, there were 218 infected inmates, including 129 at North Kern State Prison near Bakersfield. Wasco State Prison in the same county had 32 infected inmates, but only one other prison has double-digit infections.
Statewide, there were 357 active infections among employees; 39 employees have died, including three this month.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association said the mandate could create staff shortages if employees refused to comply.
âWe have embarked on a voluntary and aggressive vaccination program and we still believe that the voluntary approach is the best way forward. We are examining our legal options to respond to this order, âUnion president Glen Stailey said in a statement.
Rita Lomio, a lawyer with the nonprofit Prison Law Office who requested the order, said she saw no plausible reason for the union to appeal the warrant because there is “a factual and legal basis if clear for that â.
âWe think it’s great. We believe it is necessary, âshe said.
Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, Nevada, New Mexico and all federal prisons already have similar mandates, she said, but California was the first to force it. a court order.
The state prison agency and Governor Gavin Newsom, whose administration had ordered vaccinations or tests for all state employees, including correctional workers, opposed the move. Tigar command removes the option of frequent testing.
The administration “is currently evaluating the court order to determine next steps,” Corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email. “We do not agree with the conclusion of deliberate indifference, as the department has long embraced (voluntary) vaccinations” and was one of the first to provide them to vulnerable inmates and staff at the end of the ‘last year.
Almost all of California’s 99,000 inmates have been offered the vaccine and 76% are fully immunized, she said. Of the employees, 57% are fully vaccinated.
Tigar said this included about 42% of correctional officers system-wide, but vaccination rates vary and are only 18% in a prison. In several prisons, the rates among all employees are in the order of 30%, he said.
The judge has given Kelso and prison officials two weeks to say how they will comply with his order. He also asked Kelso to consider other ways to increase the inmate vaccination rate, including a possible mandatory vaccination policy for all inmates.