Guest Commentary: Compromising the Compromised

Photo by Mohammad Shahhosseini on Unsplash

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.


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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One thought on “Guest Commentary: Compromising the Compromised”

  1. Olivia Campbell

    First, know that I wish you health and safety. I also wish that the world worked the way you envision it, but it doesn’t. Can we please, please, please stop wasting valuable time and energy trying to appeal to feelings, sympathies, and values that do not exist within CDCr and largely, within the government and the populace?

    You’re an incarcerated person, so you should know better than anyone the nature of the beasts. Corrections officers are trained to see their captive population as less than human. They are the bottom of the barrel of the workforce, not fit for anything else, and with an inherent proclivity to abuse, neglect, belittle, and intimidate. Their oath to serve and protect is in name only, just like every statement and policy that the administration of CDCr has ever made. All that matters to them is capitalizing off of the pain, sickness, and forced labor of the people in their cages.

    As for their taxpayer funded salaries, I doubt that most Californians know just how much of their dollars go toward supporting this crime against humanity that masquerades as a government institution. I doubt they’re aware that they’re paying CO’s 40% above market value to torture and murder human beings. And I bet they don’t know that the approval for this exorbitant sum of their taxpayer dollars comes from Newsom himself… after the CO union pays him off in donations every year. As for his mandates, are you aware that he and his administration (including newly-elevated Rob Bonta, the supposed champion of justice reform) have been, in collusion with CDCr and CCPOA, fighting the federal vaccine mandate every step of the way? He is firmly in their pocket.

    These government types are extremely adept at PR and optics–looking like they’re helping and supporting and then throwing you under the bus where it really counts. And sadly, much of California’s population probably doesn’t care either, because they’ve spent their whole lives being conditioned to believe false narratives about the justice system and the incarcerated. We are on our own. They will not be reasoned with because they do not care. It is up to those of us who know how things really work to militantly demand action and accountability from them. And this cannot be accomplished by focusing our efforts through a lens of false morals and empty obligations.

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