Jeremy Gordon

The Potential Impact of the Vaccine Mandate on the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Labor Unions for prison guards and other officials have stated that vaccine mandates will lead to shortages. But an analysis of the city of New York's vaccine mandate may contradict that theory.

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Government Executive has published a story indicating that Labor Unions representing Federal Bureau of Prisons employees are protesting President Biden’s Vaccine Mandate.  The Labor Unions are indicating that it could lead to understaffing.  But other law enforcement agencies may belie that assertion. 

The COVID-19 Problem in the Federal Prisons

The first recorded case of COVID-19 in the Brooklyn Metropolitan Correctional Center was in March of 2020.  From that time until today, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the federal prison system.  While numbers may not be completely accurate, the Bureau of Prisons recorded that 42,998 inmaes and 7,809 staff have recovered from COVID-19 as of October 5, 2021. The BOP has also recorded 261 deaths among inmates and six staff deaths.  Government Executive also listed that as of October 5, 2021, there were 455 active cases amongst inmates and 476 active cases amongst staff.

In December of 2020 the BOP began distribution of vaccines to the inmate populationOver 200,000 doses have been administeredThe Pfizer vaccine was the first to receive full approval by the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of prisons have begun to administer third doses to the inmate population.

President Biden’s Vaccine Mandate

On September 9, 2021 President Biden announced a vaccine mandate for all federal employees and federal contractors.  This includes staff at the Bureau of Prisons from the guards all th way to the Director.  In the Government Executive story, the Bureau of Prisons told the Union that about 52% of the staff are vaccinated and hat the vast majority of the upper management officials at the BOP are vaccinated. 

The Potential for Staff Shortages

The Government executive article also discusses concerns from unions over the vaccine mandate: at the time of the most recent survey, a Department of Justice Inspector General Survey indicated that 18% of respondents indicated that they did not plan on getting vaccinated. 

Some individuals indicated that they would seek religious exemptions, with others even seeking a religion to find to skirt the mandate.  Others indicated that they resented the idea of the government making them do something or pointed out that flu vaccines are not mandatory.  A National Union treasurer for Bureau of Prison employees estimated that the BOP “may lose 10-20% of [their] staff” if the vaccine mandate persists, something that is concerning because of existing staffing problems in the Bureau of Prisons. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is not the only law enforcement agency decrying the vaccine mandate: the Los Angeles police department is also indicating that a mandate would lead to mass exits and is refusing to enforce the mandate.   

A Contradicting Corollary: the New York City Police Department

Those wondering about the likelihood of mass resignations from the Bureau of Prisons may take interest in a similar situation:  the New York Police department.  The Washington post indicated that the November 1 2021 vaccine mandate by the City of New York would lead to 10,000 unvaccinated police officers being “pulled from [the] streets.”  However as of November 1st, only thirty-four uniformed officers have been placed on administrative leave. 

While many are awaiting a decision on religious or medical exemptions, 85 percent of the staff are vaccinated.  Further, out of 300,000 city of New York employees only 9,000 had been placed on unpaid leave with 12,000 religious or medical exemptions awaiting a decision. 

Conclusion

It is unclear why the Bureau of Prisons has had so much resistance to the vaccine and to vaccine mandates.  The idea that a prison guard balking at the government telling them what to do seems inconsistent with the concept that they serve as agents of the government telling other Americans, in the form of federal prisoners, what to do.  The number of positive cases amongst staff holds steady in the 400’s. While that is a comparably low number to the over 30,000 staff members in the Bureau, it does present a continuous risk of infection or reinfection of inmates, who already are unable to socially distance and are facing waning immunity after six months.   

Whatever the reservations are, we believe that the Bureau of Prisons should abide by the vaccine mandate as a precaution to the inmate population.  Vaccines have proven both in the private and public sectors as the most effective measures against COVID-19.  And if the New York City Police Department is any indicator most of the Bureau of Prisons staff will come around after all exemptions are either adjudicated or the time to request exemptions is exhausted. 

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