A cell block in Stillwater state prison that's home to 280 prisoners. Credit: Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

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As the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread in Minnesota, vaccination rates for prison guards and some law enforcement workers remain lower than the state average or, in some cases, unknown.

This is especially true for state Department of Corrections employees. According to the state’s numbers as of this week, just 53 percent of Corrections employees are fully vaccinated, trailing Minnesota’s overall rate of 71 percent for people age 16 and higher. Vaccination rates for corrections employees also trail those of the state’s incarcerated population, 74 percent of whom are fully vaccinated against the virus.

A vaccination mandate for all state employees goes into effect next week, which will require all employees to provide proof of vaccination or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. 

Vaccination rates may also lag for police officers. In the case of the Minneapolis Police Department, the state’s largest police department, vaccination rates are unknown. The same is true for the St. Paul Police Department.

Both findings are unacceptable to Mohamed Ibrahim, who is a part of the Minnesota Coalition for Justice for George Floyd and All Stolen Lives, which organizes against police violence; he’s also deputy director at the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has advocated for the religious rights of incarcerated people. 

Mohamed called the low vaccination numbers in Corrections “extremely irresponsible,” especially since prison populations are likely more vulnerable to COVID-19, living in confined areas where the virus can flourish. 

“We know that when it comes to disparities in COVID-19, it really hit the prison population a lot worse than it did other populations,” Mohamed said. 

The Corrections Department currently lists 2,257 out of 4,238 employees as fully vaccinated, but department spokesperson Nick Kimball said that those numbers don’t necessarily capture the full picture. The numbers measure employees who were vaccinated through the Corrections Department or who self-reported their status to the department, Kimball said. But until next week, employees aren’t required to report their vaccination status to the state.

“It’s entirely possible people have been vaccinated but don’t want to share it, for whatever reason,” Kimball said. 

Close to 1,000 Corrections employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, per state numbers. 

Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has infected more than 4,000 people who live behind bars in state prisons like Faribault, Lino Lakes, and Stillwater. (This number doesn’t include local jails or the state’s two federal prisons.) .

Out of those COVID cases, 12 individuals died. Currently, close to 74 percent of the state’s incarcerated population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, totaling 5,290 out of 7,195. 

The highest wave of infections came late last summer and into fall 2020, and things have ebbed since then. As of press time, the Corrections Department listed 10 active COVID-19 infections in its prison population. 

People of color are disproportionately represented in the state’s prison population. Nearly 37 percent of the state prisoners Black, more than four times the percentage of Black people in the state’s overall population. Eight percent were American Indian, compared to just 1 percent of Minnesota’s population.

Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t know if their police forces are vaccinated

As in Minnesota, prison staff across the country have lower vaccination numbers. In California, for example, just half of prison staffers have been vaccinated, according to recent data. Similarly, vaccination rates for employees of the Los Angeles Police Department—California’s largest police agency— also trailed the overall vaccine-eligible state population by nearly 30 percent. 

Mohamed said city governments like Minneapolis should be responsible for tracking and making sure its employees are vaccinated, especially for employees like police officers who “have a high chance of encountering vulnerable populations” on the job. 

MPD spokesperson John Elder referred all questions about staff vaccination to city officials, calling the matter “an HR question.” Minneapolis city spokesperson Corrine Horowitz said the city “has not come up with a way to accurately track” the vaccination rates of its employees. But the city is working with attorneys in its Human Resources department to do so, she added. The city currently requires masking inside government buildings, but has not mandated vaccines or regular COVID-19 testing of its employees.

“City leaders are considering all options, including vaccine and testing requirements,” Horowitz said. 

The vaccination status of St. Paul police officers is also unknown. St. Paul city government does not track vaccination status of its employees, said Peter Leggett, a spokesperson for St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. Carter recently directed the city’s human resources to explore a vaccine requirement for city employees and provide a recommendation to his office. Any such mandate from Carter would be similar to the state’s mandate and include weekly tests for those who decide not to get a shot.

St. Paul is also currently not mandating vaccines for its employees. Last month, the city council voted to recommend a vaccination requirement for city employees, but did not vote on a mandate itself. 

Other local governments, however, are taking steps. The governments of Hennepin County and Ramsey County recently made proof of vaccination or weekly COVID-19 testing a requirement for county workers. 

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 5, which represents Corrections Department employees, also does not track vaccination rates of its members. Max Hall, AFSCME Council 18’s political action director, said the union has held vaccine drives aimed at Corrections Department employees and will continue doing so. 

“We’re highly encouraging vaccination across our membership,” Hall said. 

The Minneapolis Police Federation did not return phone calls from Sahan Journal seeking comment on MPD vaccination rates.

State mandate starts September 8 

Vaccination rates for state prison workers could get higher soon. Starting September 8, all state employees will be required to get the vaccine or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing, in order to comply with an executive order from Governor Tim Walz. 

Dan Shulman, an attorney who is representing a class action lawsuit against the Corrections Department for its COVID-19 safety policies, said the mandate will help.

“It certainly ought to be sufficient to help with the prison problem,” Shulman said.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...