Debate over vaccine mandate raises questions about prison staff’s obligation to those in their custody
By Brandon J. Baker
During the past 21 years of incarceration, I experienced a cycle of emotions, many of which I was acquainted with prior to coming to prison. While I’ve had my fair share of feeling sadness, loneliness, anger, depression and torment, the COVID-19 pandemic evoked an emotion I’ve never felt before: fear.
For the first time in my life, I am afraid. The overwhelming helplessness prisoners like me have faced in 2020 has struck fear into my heart as I grapple with the very real possibility of dying in prison.
The California Supreme Court recently upheld the governor’s vaccine mandate. The persistent objection to the mandate from the public has triggered and upset many incarcerated people here at the California State Prison in the city of Lancaster.
While it seems that a significant amount of this country’s population still debate the validity of the COVID-19 pandemic and actively participate in spreading false information, prisoners here have seen COVID-19 with our own eyes. We repeatedly watched each other catch the virus and saw the traumatic effects it enacted. Healthy people experienced drastic weight loss, the inability to breathe and, in many cases, people died.
As the city of Lancaster became the epicenter for COVID-19 and social distancing was impossible, every day I awaited the seemingly inevitable news of a positive test, wracked with anxiety.
In the throes of early lockdown measures, visitation privileges were cancelled for all prisoners for more than a year, leaving prisoners in total lockdown. Prison staff were the only people allowed to come and go and were the only contact the prisoners had with society. Logic follows that the outbreaks the prisoners experienced were the direct result of their interactions with the staff.
Recently, visiting privileges for prisoners have resumed with strict guidelines for the incarcerated and their visitors. To avoid the mandatory 14-day quarantine, many prisoners opted to receive the vaccine. Meanwhile, there are no mandates, guidelines, imposed quarantine or vaccination policies applicable to prison staff.
The question, “Should vaccines be mandatory for corrections officers (COs)?” must be answered morally through the lens of obligation. Every CO receives their salary from the taxpayers of California. The purpose of the CO’s job is to maintain a safe environment for the incarcerated population: preventing any threats to the safety and security of the institution.
People in prison have a right to feel safe, and a vaccine mandate would ensure that those responsible for keeping incarcerated people safe won’t be the cause of yet another outbreak that threatens a compromised population.
COs have taken an oath to protect and to serve. Regardless if fulfilling their duty means taking a bullet in the chest or a needle in the arm, their jobs require them to sacrifice their life if need be. The citizens of this nation pay their salary to uphold this cause, salute them for service and honor them in the event of their death.
It is not a question of: “Is it ethical for the government to enforce mandates on COs?” But rather: “Is it ethical for COs to refuse the mandate?”
Published originally by Prison Journalism Project. Prison Journalism Project trains incarcerated writers to become journalists and publishes their stories.