Credit: Adam M. Rhodes

An overwhelming majority of Illinois prison staff have not received a COVID-19 vaccine booster, and only about two-thirds of staff have gotten both of the initial vaccine doses amid the latest wave of infections—which has also impacted those already vaccinated against the virus. 

About 7 percent of Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) staff have received a COVID-19 booster, according to department data obtained by the Illinois Prison Project through a public records request and shared exclusively with the Reader. Forty-five percent of people incarcerated in IDOC prisons have received the booster. At only two correctional facilities, Peoria and North Lawndale, did staff have the booster at higher rates than people in custody.

Booster rates differ considerably from one IDOC facility to another. For staffers, booster rates at Illinois correctional facilities range from less than 1 percent at Centralia Correctional Center to as much as 30 percent at Elgin Mental Health Center. Rates for people incarcerated in IDOC facilities range from 2 percent at Peoria Adult Transition Center to nearly 65 percent at Kewanee, a juvenile detention center. 

Data visualization by Adam M. Rhodes

The Illinois Department of Public Health reports that more than 3.27 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine booster have been administered in the state, roughly 25 percent of the entire Illinois population. 

IDOC did not respond to inquiries before press time. Internal IDOC e-mails indicate that the agency administered booster doses to staff at prisons over a three-day period in early December 2021. 

“It’s appalling that a mere fraction of prison staff have received COVID-19 booster shots while the virus continues to ravage Illinois’s prisons,” Illinois Prison Project’s executive director Jennifer Soble says in a statement to the Reader

The data, current as of December 17, 2021, also reports that 66 percent of IDOC prison staffers are fully vaccinated (i.e., have gotten both doses) against COVID, compared to 75 percent of people in custody. As WBEZ previously reported, that’s a significant increase from the 44 percent of staffers who were vaccinated in August. 

Advocates have long pushed for vaccine requirements for prison workers to overcome low vaccination rates, and Governor J.B. Pritzker answered those calls with a mandate in August. Although the workers’ union—the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—began arbitration proceedings over the mandate in October, an arbitrator recently sided with the state and upheld the mandate. The arbitrator’s decision states that staffers covered by the mandate have until the end of January to get a first dose of the vaccine. 

“The recent surge of cases brought on by the Omicron variant has brought a serious threat to our state, and I’m glad that this ruling will protect nearly 10,000 state workers and all of the people at these facilities,” Pritzker said in a late December statement about the decision.

According to a statement by the union, its representative on the arbitration panel has filed a formal dissent from the decision at the Illinois Labor Relations Board. 

“AFSCME Council 31 dissents because we do not believe that a mandatory vaccination policy without a testing option will result in a level of protection against infection by transmission of COVID-19 that is superior to the protection that can be provided by a ‘vaccine or test’ mandate,” the dissent states. COVID-19 can still impact vaccinated people even though studies overwhelmingly show vaccines decrease the severity of COVID-19 in infected individuals.

AFSCME also expressed concerns in the dissent that staffers would quit over the mandate, but similar concerns in police departments across the country have failed to bear fruit

Dr. Seth Prins, an assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University in New York City, says that prison staffers refusing or delaying getting the vaccine and booster has myriad consequences, both for people they guard and control as well as surrounding communities. 

Prins says guards without booster doses also pose a potentially fatal risk for those in state custody amid the latest COVID-19 wave, particularly within spaces that make social distancing and other mitigation efforts nearly impossible. According to IDOC’s COVID-19 dashboard, staff make up a little more than one-third of all COVID cases in state prisons. 

“We already know that congregate settings like jails and prisons allow for the rapid spread of infectious diseases that are transmitted person to person, especially those that are airborne,” Prins says. “It’s very difficult to socially distance and engage in the practices that we know can make us safer, such as distancing, handwashing, and masking.”

Prins also adds that unlike incarcerated people, guards and staffers come and go, bringing the virus with them as they enter and leave prisons. 

“Allowing conditions in jails and prisons to kind of go unchecked and out of control like this will actually make things worse for everyone else as well,” Prins says. 

Advocates have repeatedly called for the state to significantly reduce its prison population since the start of the pandemic, an effort Prins says is the most significant way to stop the spread of COVID in prisons. 

After about 3,400 people in Illinois prisons were released at the start of the pandemic, between March and June 2020, Injustice Watch reported that white inmates were granted freedom more so than their Black counterparts. As part of a lawsuit settlement, IDOC agreed in March 2021 to more COVID-related releases, which attorneys at the time estimated could impact as many as 1,000 people behind bars. The deal specifically impacted people deemed low- to medium-risk who are within nine months of their release date and are eligible for certain good-time credits.

“Every infection, every death is a direct result of workers’ refusal to follow even basic public health precautions,” Soble, of the Illinois Prison Project, says. Soble helped represent the plaintiffs in the suit against IDOC. “Governor Pritzker and the Department of Corrections have a choice: heed the repeated calls of experts and advocates and immediately commit to widespread decarceration, or allow a dangerous virus to jeopardize the lives and well-being of imprisoned people in their care.”

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.