Human rights and safety violations reported at two healthcare facilities in California’s prison system

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

While much of the nation has been trying to figure out how to safely see family members—fully vaccinated and otherwise—during the holidays, WitnessLA has learned that what are described as “gross safety violations” pertaining to vaccine requirements for California’s prison employees, appear to be occurring in the state’s two medical prisons, the California Medical Facility (CMF) and the California Healthcare Facility (CHCF).  

These are the two facilities operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that house some of the most vulnerable people residing in the state’s entire prison system.

CMF, located in Vacaville, CA,  is in what justice advocate Olivia Campbell describes as “gross violation” of an August 19, 2021 public health order, issued by Tomás J. Aragón, the state’s Public Health Officer & Director.

The order in question requires all California prison staff (paid and unpaid, state and contracted) who work in certain healthcare settings, to have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 14, 2021.

More recently, Aragón followed his August order with an update issued on December 22, 2021.

The update, which includes the new threat of the Omicron variant, does not appear to leave any wiggle room at all when it comes vaccination requirements.

Specifically, the December update not only called for the initial round of two vaccinations (or one, if your vaccine was made by Johnson & Johnson).  Now Director Aragón requires employees—permanent or contractors—who are eligible for boosters, to be “fully vaccinated and boosted.” 

It turns out, however, only 37 percent of the contracted staff (who account for 26 percent of employees at CMF), are in compliance with the public health order requiring a full complement of COVID vaccines.

The rest are simply ignoring the order. And they are reportedly doing so with zero consequences.

The CDCR, it seems, has done nothing about the violations, reportedly claiming that they can’t discipline contractors.

What the CDCR can do, however, is to prevent the order-violating contractors from entering the two medical prisons, if those contractors are ignoring Aragón’s December vaccination order. 

This issue came to light in the course of a December 16, “case management conference,” between CDCR officials and the attorneys for Plata v. Newsom, the famously ongoing litigation that specifically addresses inadequate medical care in all state prisons, the prison officials reportedly admitted that they have failed to keep the non-vaxxed contract players out of the medical prisons.

 The  contractors in question, according to the Plata lawyers’ long and detailed preconference filing, include an unsettling percentage of  medical personnel who have direct contact with many of the oldest, and most medically vulnerable incarcerated people at CMF. 

According to the Plata lawyers, the situation is reportedly not much better at the Stockton-located CHCF, where contractors account for 17 percent of staff, but only 61 percent are in compliance with the December vaccination order.

 “By refusing to enforce the public health order on these unvaccinated personnel, the administrations of CMF and CHCF are deliberately endangering the lives of the vulnerable populations under their care,”Cambell told us.  

The the failure of the state to effectively regulate the vaccine status of its workers represents a disturbing trend, she said.

“The fact that CDCR and the prison guards’ union have largely been successful in thwarting every attempt to keep their captive population safe is bad enough. And now this.”

The “thwarting” to which Campbell refers is the challenge to a September 2021 ruling by Judge Jon S. Tiger, who is the U.S. District court judge who presently oversees the ongoing Plata settlement.

In his September 2021 order, Judge Tiger ruled that staff members working in the all CDCR facilities must be “limited to those workers who establish proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or have an approved religious or medical exemption to vaccination.”

Plata attorneys and other justice advocates were dismayed that Judge Tigar’s September ruling, which affected staff of all the state’s prison facilities—except for the state’s two medical prisons, which have stricter rules—didn’t kick in until January 12, 2022.

Yet even the January 2022 date was challenged by the politically powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA)—the prison guard’s union—which argued that any mandate at all “could create staff shortages if employees refuse to comply.”

And so it was that the January date become inoperative when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on November 26, 2021, postponing the deadline to get thousands of prison workers vaccinated until at least March of 2022, at which time the Tigar mandate may or may not remain intact.

Now, said Campbell, “a group of prison staff, who are responsible for the health and well-being of the incarcerated people most at risk of infection and complications from COVID, are blatantly ignoring the only mandate that managed to survive the [union] pushback.”

And, as things stand at this moment, those ignoring the vaccination mandate affecting those working in two medical prisons, “are doing so with no accountability.”

More as we know it.

Leave a Comment