August 12, 2021

The new “vaccine or test” rule will help shield PA’s prisons
Governor Wolf announced this week a new policy that will require staff in state prisons to get vaccinated or be tested weekly for COVID-19.

Governor Wolf announced this week a new policy that will require staff in state prisons to get vaccinated or be tested weekly for COVID-19. This is good news for incarcerated people and their loved ones. The governor’s decision will strengthen the prisons’ defenses against the coronavirus and help protect people in custody as the Delta variant continues to drive up new infections.

Vaccinated prison staff are shields for incarcerated people

“If you don’t choose to get vaccinated, you’re not serving as a shield,” Governor Wolf said in announcing the new policy, “and you’re putting the people around you — your neighbors, your family members, your friends, your community — at risk.”

Prison staff have an especially important role in shielding others from the coronavirus, as they are one of the only sources of transmission for people confined to prisons. Yet only about 23% of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections staff report being vaccinated for COVID-19. The actual number is probably somewhat higher, since up until now, DOC staff have not been required to report their vaccination status. But it’s clear that there are still huge holes in the shield of immunity vaccinated corrections officers and staff hold up for people in custody.

We are hopeful that the new policy will nudge more staff to get vaccinated. It requires they get fully vaccinated by Sept. 7 to be exempt from the weekly testing requirement. As an added incentive, the state is offering employees vaccinated by Oct. 1 an additional 7.5 or 8 hours of paid time off.

The “vaccine or test” mandate will help make the DOC’s new measures to protect unvaccinated people in custody more effective. This week, the DOC began suspending in-person visits for unvaccinated people in custody and separating them from the rest of the prison population to reduce their contact with “potential carriers of the virus.” But, as some frustrated family members have called us to point out, they could still be exposed to unvaccinated corrections officers. The state’s new mandate should help narrow that potential avenue of infection.

We have been calling all year for correctional staff to be tested regularly for the coronavirus until they are vaccinated, and are pleased that all state prisons will finally implement this policy. But the new rule does not apply to people working in county jails, where staff vaccination rates remain similarly low.

The Prison Society calls on all county jails to follow the state’s example and require regular testing of all staff who come into contact with people in custody until they are vaccinated.

In addition, the Prison Society continues to call on all state and county officials to:

  • Continue to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all people in custody and staff in prisons and jails;
  • Require that every county publicly report prison testing results and virus-related deaths in custody;
  • Test and quarantine every new person entering custody; and
  • Eliminate the medical co-pay for accessing health care while in custody.
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