Sierra Conservation Center

An aerial view of Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown.

The majority of the staff at the Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) state prison in Jamestown are unvaccinated, but a federal ruling on Monday mandating vaccinations for all California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees may change that. 

Dana Simas, press secretary for CDCR at the state level, said the state corrections department was evaluating the court's order to determine its next steps. 

"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," she said in an email to The Union Democrat.

The ruling was a result of a court-appointed receiver — a third party custodian who, in this case, manages the prison healthcare system — calling for the vaccination of all state prison employees and inmates who work outside the prison or accept an in-person visitation. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state correctional officer’s union were the chief opponents of the recommendation. U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar issued his 22-page ruling on Monday. 

"Defendants are aware of a substantial risk of serious harm to incarcerated persons, and, although they have taken many commendable steps during the course of this pandemic, they have nonetheless failed to reasonably abate that risk because they refuse to do what the undisputed evidence requires," the ruling stated. 

Simas and SCC spokesperson Ricardo Jauregui did not respond to questions related to the response of SCC employees to the ruling and whether some planned to quit, sentiment about vaccinations among staff at SCC, or whether the ruling led to some signalling their intention to get the vaccine. 

Sierra Conservation Center falls behind the state in vaccination metrics for both staff and inmates.

Out of 99,402 total inmates across all of CDCR, 76% are fully vaccinated and 2% partially. There are 3,363 inmates at SCC, with 2,364 fully vaccinated (70%) and 69 inmates partially vaccinated. 

Out of 66,322 total staff across all of CDCR, 57% are fully vaccinated and 4% partially vaccinated compared with 1,189 total staff at SCC, with 517 staff fully vaccinated (43%) and 42 partially vaccinated.

SCC is ahead of just five other prisons out of 36 institutions in the percentage of employees who are fully vaccinated, or sixth to last, excluding designations in the CDCR table which are not prison facilities.

Statewide, there have been 50,763 total cases of COVID-19 among CDCR inmates — more than half of the population — since the pandemic began and 201 cases in the last two weeks. 

There are 206 active cases, 614 inmates released while actively infected and 240 who died from the virus, according to the CDCR. 

With staff, there have been 20,610 cases of COVID-19 as of Sept. 24 (a new update is planned for Oct. 1), including 357 active cases and 39 deaths. 

SCC has avoided a new surge since a widely publicized outbreak which may have been started by an infected employee, according to the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, which passed that information to KQED and did not respond to The Union Democrat for comment.

The Tuolumne County Public Health Department indicated there has not been a new case at SCC since Sept. 11. There are no active cases at this time and no deaths. 

There have been 397 cases among staff, with 18 current cases. There were 23 new cases in the last 14 days.

SCC counted one death among staff on Sept. 1. The prison is third highest in new cases in the last 14 days and currently the third highest in active cases, but far near the bottom on total cases. 

Simas touted CDCR's early adoption of the COVID-19 vaccine, noting its rollout to staff and inmates at the end of last year. 

"Nearly every incarcerated person has now been offered the vaccine, and those who have not have either been away from the institutions for court proceedings or have newly entered the system. Most recently, (CDCR has) offered third doses of the vaccine to immunocompromised incarcerated persons in accordance with updated health guidance," the ruling acknowledged. "(CDCR has) also been offering the vaccine to staff on-site and have undertaken multiple efforts to encourage both staff and incarcerated persons to be vaccinated."

Simas said, to date, approximately 99% of incarcerated people have been offered the vaccine.

Further public health orders have already required some CDCR employees to seek vaccinations. 

Under a July 26 order, CDCR staff must either be fully vaccinated or tested at least once weekly. 

An order on Aug. 5 was seen to have eliminated the option of testing for workers in certain health care settings and required them to get vaccinated or lose their job, but the CDPH clarified the following day that the order did not apply to health care settings within correctional facilities. 

On Aug. 19, the CDPH required "all paid and unpaid individuals who are regularly assigned to provide health care or health care services to inmates, prisoners, or detainees,” and “[a]ll paid and unpaid individuals who are regularly assigned to work within hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, intermediate care facilities, or the equivalent that are integrated into the correctional facility or detention center in areas where health care is provided" to be vaccinated by Oct. 14.

However, the vaccine requirement does not apply to relief staff, overtime, swaps, and people who do not regularly work in the area, or emergency response teams. 

Simas said CDCR was "actively working" to come into compliance with the CDPH order by the deadline. 

The Los Angeles Times said they received a statement from Newsom defending his stance against mandating vaccinations for CDCR staff, quoting him as touting the state's low transmission rates and high vaccination rates.

Newsom followed by providing similar statistics as Simas that touted CDCR's response since the start of the pandemic.

The Los Angeles Times further noted that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association gave $1.75 million to Newsom’s recall defense fund and that Service Employees International Union, "which represents about 12,000 staff in prisons, kicked in a combined $5.5 million to Newsom’s anti-recall campaign from its various locals.”

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association told The Los Angeles Times through its spokesperson that it was “awaiting CDCR’s plan for implementation of the order and the impact" to the 28,000 officers it represents. 

The court ultimately found that the risk posed to inmates constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment, though the ruling still allows for medical or religious exemptions. 

The implementation plan, including a deadline by which all persons must be vaccinated, must be submitted by Oct. 11. 

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at gricapito@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 588-4526.

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