Less Than Half of Federal Bureau of Prisons Staff Have Accepted COVID Vaccines From the Agency
Director encourages employees to get vaccinated, tells lawmakers 49% have been inoculated by the bureau so far.
All federal prisons employees have been offered the coronavirus vaccine, but just 49% have accepted it so far, the Federal Bureau of Prisons director said on Thursday.
When asked during a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies why the percentage for staff was less than half, BOP Director Michael Carvajal said, “I wish I could answer that, but I certainly can’t force it on anyone and I will tell you this, I am vaccinated and I encourage all of my staff to get it.” Carvajal, who became director on February 25, 2020, shortly before the virus’ outbreak, said he has distributed information on the vaccine, appeared in video messages and partnered with the union on encouraging vaccinations. However, “I certainly respect people’s personal choices,” he noted.
He did not say whether or not employees are getting the vaccine elsewhere. Every weekday the agency updates its vaccination numbers online, and notes the numbers do not include staff who got their vaccines in the community. BOP has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
Carvajal said he couldn’t compel staff to take the vaccines because they have emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, not full approval.
Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, said he didn’t understand and asked why employees could not be forced to get vaccinated. “I don’t fully understand it myself,” said Carvajal. “I get guidance and counsel” from medical and legal personnel and the human resources department and “we have had extensive conversations” about this.
“If I could compel it, just for the sake of, to me, common sense, I would do it, but I do have to follow the rules and I respect that,” the federal prisons director said, and added that someday it could be part of the collective bargaining agreement. So far agency officials have only had “informal” talks with the union about this, he said.
The Associated Press and Marshall Project reported on Tuesday that some state and federal prison officials are refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine, either out of fear of side effects or lack of confidence in it.
However, “no dose goes unused,” as leftover vaccines go to the inmates, said Carvajal.
The agency also cannot compel inmates to get the vaccine. “At this point about 25% of the [inmate] population has been vaccinated,” he said. “By July 100% of inmates will have been offered the vaccination.” He did know how many inmates have refused the vaccine, but said he would follow up.
“Our employees have worked day and night under the most extreme circumstances during the COVID crisis. Some have given their lives,” Shane Fausey, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, which represents over 30,000 BOP correctional officers and staff, told Government Executive at the conclusion of the hearing.
“Their freedom to decide to accept a vaccine, or decline a vaccine, is protected by the Constitution and remains a personal choice,” Fausey continued. “If the legislative branch believes that it is critical to vaccinate all people, I would assume that they would quickly pass legislation to compel all citizens to be vaccinated...To imply that our federal law enforcement employees are falling short on their professional obligations by not voluntarily sacrificing their Constitutional rights is irresponsible.”
As of Thursday afternoon, 486 federal inmates and 1,374 BOP staff had positive COVID cases; 47,127 inmates and 5,274 staff had recovered; and there had been 226 federal inmate and four staff deaths, according to BOP’s data.
Twenty-two senators asked the Justice Department inspector general on Thursday to review all of these deaths. “Although BOP investigates each case involving the death of an individual in their custody, these one-off reviews of each individual COVID-19-related death may not be sufficient to determine system-wide failures in care across the entire federal prison system,” they wrote.
Overall, Carvajal lauded how his agency handled the pandemic, despite the fact that it has often been “mischaracterized in public forums.” Since early on, “we have worked closely with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], we developed a response plan that reflects the best available guidance from the nation’s leading experts, we continue to assess and update the plan by welcoming external stakeholders into our facilities for audits, and to assure procedure compliance,” he said, in addition to completing internal reviews.
He said the Bureau of Prisons has been “transparent” on its mitigation plans; operational changes; and data on COVID cases among staff and inmates, testing and, now, vaccinations.
Additionally, last spring the agency implemented a “modified lockdown” to restrict inmate movement within facilities, as Government Executive reported.
The agency’s medical personnel are “in lockstep” with the CDC and sometimes “I don't like the decisions I have to make; I don’t like the guidance I’m given, but I do listen to them because they are the experts,” said the director. He didn't specify what guidance or decisions he doesn’t like.
Last spring the agency’s union filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a national grievance against the Justice Department over safety concerns at BOP facilities. A union official also filed a complaint with the Justice inspector general in July over the agency’s almost $3 million purchase of ultraviolet technology meant to rid staff of any coronavirus germs they may be carrying as they enter facilities, saying the technology was largely unproven and could have harmful side effects.
The bureau also received scrutiny for allowing social visits starting in October and some inmate transfers during the heat of the pandemic. Lawmakers from both parties have raised concerns over various aspects of the agency’s handling of the pandemic over the last year.
Also, recent reports by government watchdogs show that “insufficient staffing resources have plagued the BOPs daily operations and severely hindered its response to the COVID crisis,” said Fausey. These, along with “Director Carvajal's testimony today, justify the necessary funding by this committee to return the 5,100 positions arbitrarily abolished in January of 2017.”
BOP, however, has continuously reiterated its commitment to protecting staff and inmates. Carvajal also said he is committed to reducing the bureau's overreliance on augmentation and mandatory overtime as BOP recently launched a new hiring initiative.