Even as the pandemic rages in prisons, vaccines and masks are seen as “a sign of weakness”
“The DOC has failed to control the virus.”
Prisoners’ Legal Services attorney Bonnie Tenneriello made that argument on Feb. 9, in the continuing PLS Superior Court case against the Department of Correction and the Mass Parole Board. An emergency motion was filed in October ordering the DOC to establish a home confinement program for sentenced prisoners, but there has been no significant decarceration since March, claims PLS, and they are still litigating the case.
Tenneriello lambasted the DOC in her opening for their multiple failures: they have not created a home confinement program; they have failed to reasonably release people who are sick and dying; and they are not following a new decarceration law approved by the legislature in December. As she built to her claim that both the DOC and the Parole Board are guilty of deliberate indifference, Tenneriello charged that since March, “Twenty-one people have died and over 2,800 people have been sickened by COVID.”
Another failure also was spotlighted in this hearing before Judge Robert Ullmann, who is trying the case: per Tenneriello, while COVID has been “raging,” 53% of DOC staff and correctional officers (COs) have “refused the vaccine.”
“In the end what this means,” said Elizabeth Matos, executive director of PLS, in an interview, “is that the virus will continue to come in through COs … All along, the DOC should have been far more vigilant.”
The main source of the virus in prisons and jails has always been from the community, primarily staff coming into facilities, testified Dr. Amir Mohareb, the PLS medical expert, in a written statement as part of the complaint.
According to state data from a Feb. 10 Special Master’s Report, commissioned to fairly assess the situation from all angles, 3,074 DOC employees, or more than half the staff who work for the DOC, have “refused” the vaccine. Some of the COs possibly got the vaccine elsewhere, DOC’s attorney Stephen Dietrich said at the Feb. 9 hearing, although he did not disclose any numbers.
As to why correction officers might be refusing the vaccine in such large numbers, I talked to Dave Moloney, a former student of mine from Middlesex Community College who worked for four years as a CO at Hillsborough County Jail in Manchester, New Hampshire. Nationally, COs have always been mostly white and male, and such was true in New Hampshire. Moloney, now a writer whose recent book Barker House tells the story of a group of correction officers, said COs have “a distrust of science.”
Moloney clarified, “Even when we were mandated to take the flu shot, many declined and signed a waiver saying, ‘I’m not getting the shot and if I get sick that’s my fault.’”
Moloney didn’t get the flu shot because of peer pressure to decline it. He didn’t get sick that year, but jail is like a petri dish. The nonprofit online journal the Marshall Project has reported that by Feb. 9, 2021, at least 377,396 people in prison across the country had tested positive for coronavirus since March 2020, with 2,400 deaths.
Moloney explained that COs also have a code of “toughness” they believe defines them. He said, “It was a badge of honor to survive all that sickness. If you could show up every day during flu season, that would be the equivalent of saying I’m tougher than COVID. A ribbon for perfect attendance was one of the most prestigious ribbons to put on your chest.” COs take pride, Moloney commented, in having only “our voices and our hands as weapons.” Vaccines and masks are seen as “a sign of weakness.”
Of the more than 35 prisoners in PLS’s emergency motion who have complained about prison conditions during COVID, 15 made comments about the lack of mask-wearing by officers. Justice Ainooson, serving a second-degree murder sentence at MCI Concord, said, “Every day, I see correction officers either not wearing masks at all, or just hanging them around their necks without covering their nose or mouth. I see this during the day shift, night shift, and overnight shift.”
One of Moloney’s friends, who was also a CO, said that if officers are refusing to wear masks, they are getting attorneys to say they have an underlying medical condition.
Officers also may have had COVID, considering the way that it’s gone through the jails and prisons, and “they think they are immune now,” Moloney said. In Mass, 721 state COs have tested positive for the virus, per the Special Master’s Report. But some could have been tested elsewhere and are not reporting, state the findings.
According to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, as of Dec. 8, 2020, 15 states specifically mentioned that correction officers were eligible to receive the vaccine in Phase 1 of their distribution (including in Mass). As of February, the Marshall Project found that prisons have publicly reported 181 deaths among officers out of 101,757 cases nationally since the start of the pandemic.
Many incarcerated people worry that their chronic medical conditions or mental health issues will compound if they contract COVID. Almost 70% of state prisoners have taken their first dose of the vaccine. “They are scared. They have seen so many of their friends get sick and die,” said PLS’s Matos.
COs in Mass are not alone in refusing the vaccine. This past December, Nevada COs said they would rather “quit” than take the vaccine. In Des Moines, Iowa, the DOC director had no idea why half of her COs were refusing doses, stating that perhaps, “It is too new.” “They want to make sure it’s safe,” she said, “things like that.”
In Oregon, 45% of the COs are declining vaccines and many are refusing to wear masks. Dr. Daniel Dewsnup, an infectious disease specialist, called it a “COVID rebellion,” and blamed “confusion,” “politicization,” and “orneriness.” “There are still large parts of Eastern Oregon and—well, everywhere, really—50 % of the population may believe that masking is part of a conspiracy,” Dewsnup said.
Not all COs take this stand, however. In the New Hampshire Union Leader, Ryan E. O’Callaghan, who appears to be a CO, wrote a letter to the editor where he said that all correction officers must be vaccinated and encouraged the state to include them as first responders.
The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union did not return my interview request for this article.
Katy Naples-Mitchell, a staff attorney with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, told WGBH that “Correctional staff should be required to be vaccinated as part of their employment.”
Naples-Mitchell and the attorneys who are arguing the PLS case say that more releases are needed. Attorney Tenneriello told Judge Ullmann, “Even after vaccines, we have seen outbreaks … so the danger is still very much there in our prisons as it is in society… The situation continues to be urgent.”
Ullmann said that he will rule on the case by the end of this week.
Meanwhile, approximately 1,700 staff and COs at Mass houses of correction and jails have also refused the vaccine.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.