A quarter of Illinois prison guards are still unvaccinated, but the state is punishing only a small number for violating its vaccine mandate

Big Muddy River Correctional Center
Big Muddy River Correctional Center in Ina, Ill. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Big Muddy River Correctional Center
Big Muddy River Correctional Center in Ina, Ill. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

A quarter of Illinois prison guards are still unvaccinated, but the state is punishing only a small number for violating its vaccine mandate

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More than a quarter of Illinois prison guards have failed to get vaccinated against COVID-19 according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, but the state is taking disciplinary action against just a fraction of the workers for violating its vaccine mandate.

The department has initiated proceedings against just 184 people, about 1% of the department’s employees, because more than 20% of staffers have a pending or approved exemption or have some other valid reason for not getting the jab, meaning they are not facing discipline, according to a top Illinois prison official. Discipline for unvaccinated employees begins with progressively longer suspensions ending in layoffs but some are raising concerns that aggressively enforcing the mandate could turn already existing staffing shortages into a system-wide catastrophe.

Prison staff had until Jan. 31 to get their first shot of the vaccine according to an arbitration decision that came down at the end of last year. Camile Lindsay, chief of staff to IDOC Director Rob Jeffries, said 73% of workers had gotten at least one shot as of Feb. 4. About two-thirds of staff are fully vaccinated.

Both figures are well below the statewide percentages for Illinois adults, according to Illinois Department of Public Health statistics. That’s despite the fact that congregate settings like prisons are especially susceptible to the spread of COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic more than 17,000 people locked up in Illinois adult and youth prisons, and more than 1,300 staffers, have been infected with COVID-19, according to state data. The virus has killed nearly 100 people in the Illinois prison system.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the prison watchdog John Howard Association, said the fact that more than a quarter of staff are still unvaccinated is “disappointing” but not surprising.

“We had hoped that this would be a mechanism for greater vaccine compliance,” Vollen-Katz said of the mandate. “We’re not just talking about a congregate care facility here, we’re talking about a whole system of them housing among the most vulnerable people in society.”

Workers who violate the vaccine policy face suspension, and ultimately layoff if they continue to refuse to get vaccinated.

Vollen-Katz said workers with approved and pending exemptions from the mandate will need scrutiny and said it will take time for the state to sort through all of the requests. “Unfortunately this is how bureaucracy works,” she said.

“But I would also say what I think is important is that there be more clarity and transparency around the process used to evaluate those who submit waivers from the vaccine mandate” to ensure workers aren’t taking advantage to avoid doing something they just don’t want to do, Vollen-Katz said.

Workers who don’t get vaccinated and aren’t granted an exemption will be suspended for 10 days, then another 20 if they still haven’t gotten a jab. After the 30 days of suspension the worker will have the option of taking an unpaid leave of absence or be laid off.

Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the union that represents prison workers, said initially IDOC wanted to immediately terminate those out of compliance with the vaccine mandate. He said the union successfully negotiated for progressive discipline and the option for a leave of absence of up to one year.

Vollen-Katz said for the health and safety of inmates and other workers in the prisons, which have been a hotbed for COVID-19 spread since the start of the pandemic, immediately firing the unvaccinated would have been a better policy. However she said already existing staffing problems made that an unrealistic option.

Lindall said the union is concerned that discipline around the vaccine mandate will exacerbate understaffing at state facilities.

Lindsay waved those concerns away, noting that the state has started discipline against a small number of employees.

The concern, Vollen-Katz said, is that as exemption requests get sorted out, that number could grow, and Illinois prisons are already feeling the effects of not having enough guards, nurses and other workers.

“There is already low staffing throughout the Illinois Department of Corrections. And I think that moving to immediate termination would put what’s already a difficult situation into the category of fairly catastrophic,” Vollen-Katz said.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker initially announced a vaccine mandate for many state workers last summer, however the implementation was delayed because of opposition from public employee unions. The mandate for prison guards went to arbitration, and on Dec. 29 an arbitrator said the state did have the right to require vaccines.

Vollen-Katz said if the mandate had been in effect sooner, it could have prevented a lot of COVID cases inside the prisons.

“It’s a little disappointing that it took so long to get to this point to mandate vaccination for people working within our prisons, because in many ways, we kind of missed the boat, on helping people be safer and more healthy during this highly contagious surge that we’re all experiencing,” Vollen-Katz said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.