Since the beginning of the pandemic, the United States prison system has been dealing with mass outbreaks of COVID-19. As of January 28, 2022, out of the total number of inmates tested for COVID-19, approximately 539,406 (7.6%) inmates tested positive. As of February 24, 2022, 192,722 prison staff across the United States have tested positive for COVID-19. This article considers potential reasons for these outbreaks by examining inmate and staff disease and vaccination statistics, as well as prison systems’ COVID-19 policies, in various states.
California is currently the state with the highest number of COVID-19 cases within its prisons. As of January 19, 2022, California’s prisons system had reported a total of 66,949 (2.7%) cases of COVID, and as of January 19, 2022, it reported 5,835 (0.2%) active cases. An article released on October 19, 2021, found that the amount of California inmates that had received vaccinations (77%) outweighed the number of correctional officers that had received vaccinations (61%).
The California Department of Public Health and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released two orders, one on August 19th, 2021, and the second on September 23rd, 2021, requiring staff that provide health care to inmates to be fully vaccinated by October 14, 2021. If any correctional staff refused the vaccine, they would be required to submit to two COVID-19 tests per week. As of January 20, 2022, in-person visitation has been suspended in California in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. There have been 2.7% of inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 as of January 19, 2022. Only time will tell whether this vaccine requirement will take away California’s status as the number one state with the most positive COVID-19 cases overall.
North Carolina has managed to stay out of the top ten states with the highest total number of COVID cases within its prison system. As of January 30, 2022, North Carolina had 13,063 (6.2%) positive COVID cases of inmates out of 212,180 tested. Currently, the system has 467 (1.6%) active cases of inmates with COVID-19. As of July 30, 2021, 61 staff members were not able to work due to the virus.
As of January 24, 2022, 22,140 inmates were fully vaccinated in North Carolina. To put this into perspective, as of January 22, 2022, there were 28,842 prisoners in North Carolina. In total, about 77% of inmates are fully vaccinated in North Carolina. North Carolina’s prison population is the lowest that it has been since 1995.
As of August 9, 2021, 50% of prison staff in North Carolina were vaccinated. Many prison staff seem to be wary of the vaccine because they do not trust what is in it. In discussing his own resistance to the vaccine, a former correctional officer in North Carolina cited some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the shots and the disease itself, including that the vaccine is a way for the elite to stay in power and that the pandemic is “fake.”
In North Carolina, visitation in prisons has returned to a no-contact policy, and all prisoners must be tested for COVID prior to transfer to another facility. A no-contact policy typically means that any visitation will occur online, or in the prison visitation room with no touching and safeguards such as plexiglass.
South Carolina prisons are currently reporting 920 (5.9%) active cases of COVID-19. Overall, there have been 4,972 (3.2%) cases of COVID-19 in the prison system in South Carolina. The total number of inmates vaccinated was 9,041 as of January 22, 2022. The total population of inmates in South Carolina as of January 30, 2022, was 15,367. Using this data, roughly 46% of inmates are vaccinated in South Carolina.
As of January 25, 2022, Maine has reported 162 (.1%) COVID cases among inmates, the fewest reported cases in the country. The population of inmates was 1,575 in January of 2022. There are approximately 81.4% of adult inmates that are fully vaccinated in Maine.
The percentage of prison staff that are vaccinated is now around 67%.
The safest solutions available now may be to require workers to get vaccinated and to conduct any visitations virtually. This requirement would likely bring tension among prison staff–it has already been shown that workers who are required to get the vaccination have unionized and threatened to quit.
However, the United States Supreme Court held that limiting federal funding to only healthcare facilities that have vaccinated staff against COVID-19 (except for religious or medical purposes) is constitutionally permissible. In Biden v. Missouri, the Court reviewed the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ decision to restrict funding for Medicare and Medicaid to facilities that only had staff vaccinated against COVID-19. The Court held that this was within the Secretary’s powers because a vaccine mandate would lessen the possibility for healthcare staff to transmit the virus to patients receiving either Medicare or Medicaid.
Does the Court’s holding in Biden mean that federal funding can be limited to certain facilities based off vaccination status? It appears that the answer might be yes. The opinion falls to mention how this might affect prison staff. Nevertheless, the holding in Biden suggests that a federally funded prison would likely be subjected to limitations made by the Court. However, the Court in Biden did not hold that vaccines can be mandated. The federal government distributes billions of dollars to state governments, who in turn use that money for various reasons such as funding prisons.
Staffing shortages have been a critical problem in prisons throughout all 50 states since 2017 and requiring workers to get a vaccine would mean taking the risk that the workers might quit. In fact, the state of Washington imposed a vaccine mandate for prison staff and roughly 4.5% of the staff quit or were fired. There are over 8,000 correctional workers in Washington. This would leave approximately 360 employees missing from work in Washington prisons today.
When prisons have difficulty retaining or attracting employees, this typically leads to greater investments to try and correct this problem. For example, in 2020, Florida paid $77 million to prison staff in October in an attempt to attract more employees and promote positions.
It is apparent that change might be necessary for the United States. The nation is still adjusting to the ever-adapting virus. Vaccines against COVID-19 have become familiar, and in order to promote safety and wellness within the United States’ prison system, the safest measure might be to require vaccinations. Whether or not this is constitutionally permissible is up for debate and subject to discussion.
 Note that as the pandemic continues to progress, these statistics are constantly changing.