Olympia, WA – State prison officials said that losing an additional 350 employees under the Washington vaccine mandate won’t make the already-understaffed prisons any less safe.
Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Cheryl Strange claimed state prisons were operating the same on Thursday after 350 prison employees quit or were fired on Monday for failing to submit their vaccination records to the state, KING reported.
State employees had until Oct. 18 to submit proof they’d been vaccinated or be fired under the mandate, The Spokesman-Review reported.
About 92 percent of DOC employees are vaccinated, as opposed to the statewide average of 95 percent.
The Washington Office of Financial Management said that employees who were waiting to get their second shot or who were waiting for a decision on their request for an exemption could take up to a month of leave to get vaccinated and return to their position, if the position hadn’t been filled.
The Washington State Patrol lost 127 members of its 2,200-person force on Tuesday as a result of the mandate.
DOC employees have been suffering for more than a year under difficult pandemic restrictions in the prisons and with a shortage of personnel that resulted from the almost-constant alerts of Covid exposure that necessitated quarantine, KING reported.
Strange said that employees who were terminated by DOC on Monday were correctional officers, medical staffers, cooks, and maintenance workers in state prisons.
She said DOC was working to immediately replace the unvaccinated employees with vaccinated workers, KING reported.
“We’re trying to fill them today,” Strange said.
The prison system’s boss said that she didn’t think having 350 fewer staff in the prison system would impact employee safety, KING reported.
She said employees had already been covering vacant shifts since the pandemic started.
Staffing the prison requires relying on overtime, on-call shifts, and shifting staff to other facilities that are in more desperate need of personnel, KING reported.
Strange said that despite the sudden loss of about 4.5 percent of DOC’s employees, she thinks the prison system is safer under the state’s mandate.
“We have not seen a significant impact to staff, or those in our care and custody, any uptick in injury or fights,” she said.
Strange said that having all employees vaccinated will result in fewer viral exposures and less time in quarantine for inmates and prison staff, KING reported.
“Somebody would get a tag saying, ‘You have possibly been exposed.’ We do screenings, we did testing, so we had a lot of people out for that exposure. So that will go down,” she explained.
But the union that represents all of the non-supervisor prison employees in the state said the situation is far more grim that what Strange is describing.
Michelle Woodrow, the president of Teamsters 117, said that employees who did get vaccinated are exhausted and morale is at an all-time low, KING reported.
“They are saying goodbye to a lot of co-workers that they’ve worked with for a very long time and have relationships, there’s an element of grief that’s occurring,” Woodrow said.
The union boss said the staffing shortage has made working in prisons more dangerous, KING reported.
”It’s unhealthy for the incarcerated population. It’s unhealthy for our staff. And it’s not safe,” Woodrow explained.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordered a two-week hold on transfers of prisoners to state facilities from county jails while DOC adjusts staffing, KING reported.