A California appellate court struck down the statewide coronavirus vaccine mandate for prison employees on April 25. The court sided with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation over J. Clark Kelso, the federal receiver for California prison medical care.
Gov. Gavin Newsom initiated an appeal of Clark Kelso’s order, claiming the corrections department’s efforts to encourage voluntary vaccination were sufficient. Newsom complained that a mandate could lead to mass resignations by prison employees.
COVID-19 cases jumped 820% during the final week of April. As California prisons continue to be coronavirus super-spreader sites, just 41% of prison employees and 64% of prisoners are up to date on their vaccinations.
As Lisa, a paid teaching intern at Prison Arts Collective told Liberation News, “Prison is the perfect breeding ground for disease outbreaks.” They continued, “People are living on top of each other in unventilated 8′ by 12′ cells. Many of those who are experiencing incarceration have mentioned that they don’t have adequate access to PPE or even showers.”
As of May 22, 254 prisoners and 50 prison employees have died from COVID, according to the CDCR. While new cases are again trending downwards, without a thorough vaccination effort it is only a matter of time before the next deadly outbreak.
Why did Newsom really fight the mandate?
Rather than fighting for CalCare or other measures that would improve the state’s efforts to fight COVID, Newsom used his power to lead the fight against a specific vaccine mandate. This is no doubt influenced by donations from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which are lining his pockets.
The CCPOA contributed $1.75 million to Newsom’s campaign during the recall election: the biggest donation from a state employees union. Like many prison guard unions, CCPOA is notorious for lobbying against efforts to improve prison conditions and are among the state’s top donors against efforts to abolish the death penalty.
Democrats and GOP united against human rights
State neglect of California’s incarcerated population during COVID is inextricably linked to the government response in prisons and working-class communities across the country. As of May 20, there have been 585,922 COVID cases among prisoners and 201,357 cases among prison staff. That makes the total number of cases inside U.S. prisons a whopping two-thirds of the number of cases recorded in all of China throughout the pandemic.
Incarcerated people — who are disproportionately from working-class Black, Latino and Native communities — are demonized by U.S. mainstream media and neglected by the prison industrial complex and state government. Guards and other employees who interact with prisoners carry COVID and other diseases in and out of the prisons. Neglecting prisoners has a widespread social cost that can’t be ignored in the struggle to defeat COVID.
Lisa from Prison Arts Collective spoke about the emotional toll as well: “Families and friends on the outside suffer too when their loved ones in prison die of coronavirus. Many of these deaths could have been prevented, and just because someone is in prison does not mean they deserve to die in an eight by 12 concrete cell.”
The Democratic Party leadership at the statewide and national level are unable — and in Newsom’s case unwilling — to implement bare-minimum public safety measures to combat the spread of COVID. A movement that organizes with and among the incarcerated population is needed to fight back against the criminal neglect by the U.S. ruling class.