COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for all Illinois prison employees

Prisons and their surrounding communities would be safer. And a dangerous backlog of people in county jails awaiting transfer would be reduced.

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Two Illinois prisons are under a two-week lockdown after two correctional officers, an incarcerated man and a worker have tested positive for COVID-19.

While two-thirds of Illinois state prisoners are vaccinated against COVID-19, less than half of Department of Corrections workers are protected against the virus.

AP file photo

As the nation fights to put a lid on the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic remains a major problem in Illinois prisons — and it’s time the Pritzker administration stepped in to fix one glaring failing.

Fewer than half of the 13,000 people who work in Illinois’ prisons have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, as Kyra Senese and Jacob Geanous of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation’s Documenting COVID-19 project, reported this week in the Sun-Times. Meanwhile, two-thirds of state prisoners are vaccinated.

That means thousands of state prison workers are at risk of catching the virus and spreading it in their workplace and communities.

Equally troubling: To keep unvaccinated state inmates and personnel safer from the virus, Illinois corrections facilities have slowed the intake of convicted prisoners from county jails. This has resulted in a backlog of some 1,000 inmates in county jails who are awaiting transfer to state prisons. Jails are facing overcrowding, ballooning costs and an upswing in inmate fighting.

For the past year, the Pritzker administration has done a pretty good job of managing the pandemic, but they’re flatly failing here. The state should require vaccinations, as a condition of employment, for all state corrections employees.

Last week, San Francisco became the first big city to mandate its workers receive coronavirus vaccinations. And in Texas last week, more than 150 Houston Methodist Hospital employees refused vaccination — and as a consequence were required to quit or were fired.

These are the tough, but necessary actions needed to clear out the prisoner transfer backlog and to make safer the communities in which Illinois prisons are located.

An American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union spokesperson said it is urging members to get vaccinated, but clearly — more than a year into the pandemic — that effort alone isn’t enough.

“What happens in prison does not stay in prison,” Uptown People’s Law Center Executive Director Alan Mills told WBEZ in May.

“So even if the prisoners are 100% vaccinated, which, by the way, they’re not, the guards are still going to spread it among themselves and then they’re going to bring it back to the community, back to their families,” Mills said. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen in the communities around [prisons].”

The Pritzker administration can and should fix this now.

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