Vaccinated prisoners, unvaccinated guards illustrate Biden's tricky road

Federal officers of Bureau of Prisons patrol the street ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, in Washington
Federal officers of Bureau of Prisons patrol the street ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2021. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

WASHINGTON, July 29 (Reuters) - A federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, grabbed national headlines in March 2020 after a COVID-19 outbreak killed at least eight inmates and sickened more than 100 people.

Sixteen months later, about 70% of its inmates have been vaccinated against the coronavirus - a rate more than double the 34% of Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staffers there who have taken the shot, according to Oakdale's union leader Ronald Morris, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1007.

The low rate reflects how responses to COVID-19 - whether getting vaccinated or wearing face masks to slow transmission - has turned into a partisan issue in the United States, with many Republicans rejecting both.

"It's just the distrust," said Morris, who told Reuters he decided it was best for him personally to get the shot to protect his family. "It depends what side of the political spectrum you're on or what part of the country that you're in."

The fact that so few Oakdale employees have agreed to get vaccinated underscores the challenges President Joe Biden's administration will face as he tries to order federal employees to either get vaccinated or face regular testing.

In a statement, the president of the union representing BOP staff warned that his group would resist a federal vaccine mandate.

"Their freedom to decide to accept a vaccine, or decline a vaccine, is protected by the Constitution and remains a personal choice," said Shane Fausey, president of National Council of Prison Locals 33.

Of all the Justice Department's more than 100,000 employees, the BOP staff are among the most high-risk for coronavirus infection. Since the start of the pandemic, 240 inmates and four staffers across the United States have died from COVID-19.

Despite the risk, only 51% of BOP employees nationwide had been fully vaccinated as of June, although they had all been offered a shot, Attorney General Merrick Garland said during testimony before a Senate panel. That statistic has infuriated prison reform advocates.

"The prisoners are sitting ducks. They don't have the luxury of avoiding unvaccinated people," said Kevin Ring, president of the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM.

The BOP union's opposition to a vaccine mandate is reflective of its overall employee base, with many of its prisons located in rural areas that have been slower to embrace the vaccine.

A union representing primarily Washington-based Justice Department employees for the Office of Justice Programs, meanwhile, is expected to issue a statement in support of Biden's new mandate - even as most of its members are still teleworking and therefore at lower risk, a union official said.

Prison inmates themselves have been relatively receptive to the vaccine, union officials told Reuters.

"I think it was more of a greater fear factor for them," Morris said.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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Thomson Reuters

Sarah N. Lynch is the lead reporter for Reuters covering the U.S. Justice Department out of Washington, D.C. During her time on the beat, she has covered everything from the Mueller report and the use of federal agents to quell protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons and the department's prosecutions following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.