64% of Illinois prison workers are now vaccinated as their union fights the mandate

Kim Henry and Von Jones
Kim Henry poses for a photo in prison with the love of her life Von Jones. Henry said Jones rarely leaves his cell because he worries about catching COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Kim Henry
Kim Henry and Von Jones
Kim Henry poses for a photo in prison with the love of her life Von Jones. Henry said Jones rarely leaves his cell because he worries about catching COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Kim Henry

64% of Illinois prison workers are now vaccinated as their union fights the mandate

After a dangerously slow start, the vaccination rate for workers in Illinois prisons has shot up in recent months, but it still lags behind the state’s overall COVID-19 vaccination rate.

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, the staff vaccination rate is 64%, up from just 44% back in August, when Gov. JB Pritzker announced a vaccine mandate for prison workers.

That massive increase still leaves staffers at a lower vaccination rate than the Illinois inmates they are guarding, and experts say it’s not high enough to keep people safe inside the COVID-19 hotspots that all jails and prisons represent.

“Obviously, it’s good that that number is going up, it’s good that that number has increased. It’s disappointing it hasn’t increased more,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the head of the prison watchdog John Howard Association. “Unfortunately, people who work inside Illinois prisons are not getting the vaccine in rates we’d like to see to protect not only the health and safety of the people inside prisons, but the health and safety of the people that work in prisons and their families and their communities.”

Vollen-Katz said in their monitoring visits to prisons they are still seeing the lives of inmates restricted because of the ongoing pandemic.

“There’s not as much going on inside the facilities, there’s not as much movement to different areas of the prison, people aren’t going to yard as much and what we’re hearing, what we’re seeing is definitely life impacted still by COVID,” Vollen-Katz said.

The union that represents prison workers is nearing the end of an expedited arbitration process with the state over Pritzker’s vaccine mandate, and that requirement is on hold for the security workforce until arbitration is completed.

Despite the increase in vaccinations since the mandate, Eddie Caumiant with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he doesn’t think the mandate should be credited for prompting more workers to get the shots. And he said the government’s decision to unilaterally impose a mandate ruined the ongoing collaboration between the state and its workforce to keep the prisons safe from COVID-19.

“I would say, early in the pandemic, there was an ability for [the state and the union] to kind of set aside any of the usual structures and just try to meet the moment. It was refreshing, it was encouraging,” Caumiant said.

But Caumiant said the state’s vaccine mandate caused “confusion” and created “unnecessary chaos.”

The union has been engaged in an aggressive education campaign promoting the vaccine among prison workers, even as they arbitrate over the mandate. Caumiant guessed that some workers may feel they don’t need to get vaccinated after having to work through the first year of the pandemic without a vaccine, and developing other methods to try and protect themselves.

Now, COVID cases are on the rise again in Illinois prisons. As of Dec. 22, 266 inmates and 180 workers were currently positive according to IDOC.That’s up from 144 and 135 respectively on Dec. 14.

Kim Henry worries constantly about her partner Von Jones, who is locked up at Menard prison. Jones is vaccinated, as are about 75% of inmates according to the John Howard Association. That’s about on par with the vaccination rate for all Illinois adults.

Henry said Jones doesn’t leave his cell much these days because of fear of COVID.

“I do feel that the officers should really take the vaccination, as a responsibility for their job and what they do, because they’re in close proximity to people who really can’t social distance,” Henry said. “And I understand it’s a personal choice. I don’t feel any ill will towards them or anything, but I just really think that should be looked at more as a matter of safety.”

Henry did give high marks to the department of corrections for their handling of prison visits.

Visits were suspended for more than a year because of the pandemic, putting a huge strain on prisoners and their families. In-person visits resumed in May.

Henry said IDOC has done an “outstanding job” structuring visits and creating visiting rooms limited to people who have been vaccinated.

“I feel secure that everyone that’s in this visiting room is vaccinated. You know, you have to show your vaccination card every time you go,” Henry said.

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