Kern County Superior Court Judge Bernard Barmann issued a temporary restraining order against a vaccination mandate for state prison guards and other workers on Wednesday, less than 48 hours before it was to become active.
A mandate requiring prison workers get vaccinated against COVID-19 has been under frequent challenge since first being proposed in July. That month, Governor Gavin Newsom issued his state worker vaccination mandate. While the order was sweeping for California state workers, including many non-guard employees who work in prisons with health care facilities, the mandate left out prison guards. As guards have had a low vaccination total, with current estimates ranging from 18% to 42%, a mandate could have led to a majority of guards suddenly not having a job.
Rather than lose a huge part of its prison staff for refusing to get vaccinated even with a mandate, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) focused on voluntary vaccination efforts aimed a prison employees.
However, in September, Oakland-based U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled that state prison guards were to be added to the mandate due to go into effect on October 15th. Judge Tigar focused on the high rate of spread in prisons for both inmates and prison employees alike, with California state prisons losing 240 inmates and 39 employees to COVID-19 since the pandemic started in March of 2020.
“A mandate would lower the risk of preventable death and serious medical consequences among incarcerated persons. And no one has identified any remedy that will produce anything close to the same benefit,” said Judge Tigar in his September ruling.
With no exemptions beyond the usual medical or religious reasons, and the testing in lieu of vaccination option also being thrown out by the judge, both the Governor and prison guard groups, such as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, were vehemently against the ruling.
“We respectfully disagree with the finding of deliberate indifference, as the department has long embraced vaccinations against COVID-19, and we continue to encourage our staff, incarcerated population, volunteers, and visitors to get vaccinated,” said the CDCR in a statement last month.
While the appeal was sent to higher courts, the prison guard groups also tried to get the order blocked before the mandate start date on Friday. The effort paid off on Wednesday with Judge Barmann’s order, effectively halting the mandate while the court considers a request for a preliminary injunction.
“There was fear that a mandate would leave a lot of prisons with a critical correctional officer shortage,” said Patrick Hughes, a healthcare worker who administers vaccines at a location frequented by prison guards to the Globe on Thursday. “A lot of them have also said they already had it, are immune, don’t want the vaccination. You know, nothing really is going to convince those who haven’t taken it by now otherwise, and the mandate sure as hell didn’t.”
“This gives everyone more time.”
A ruling over the mandate in a higher court is expected soon. The public health mandate, sans prison workers again, is due to take effect Friday.
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