N.J. Supreme Court rejects bid to halt vaccine mandate for prison guards

By: - February 14, 2022 8:52 pm

The New Jersey State Prison in Trenton (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)

The state’s top court has refused to intervene and stop Gov. Phil Murphy’s vaccine mandate for state and county correctional officers, leaving unvaccinated staff two days to get a shot — or get fired.

Several police unions, led by the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, had asked the state Supreme Court Friday for an emergency stay on Murphy’s order after a three-judge appeals panel decided against them.

In a three-page response late Monday, Justice Stuart Rabner wrote the unions failed to show that blocking the vaccine mandate was consistent with the public interest and was needed to prevent irreparable harm.

The decision was not unanimous: Justices Faustino Fernandez Vina and Lee Solomon dissented.

Murphy’s order, issued last month, requires staff at county jails and state prisons to get a first shot by Wednesday and be fully vaccinated by the end of March. Those who don’t comply face termination.

The mandate came as coronavirus cases spiked in prisons, where only 41% of officers are vaccinated, compared to 73% of the public. More than 10,700 inmates in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and 59 have died, state data shows.

In Friday’s appellate decision, Superior Court Judge Clarkson S. Fisher wrote the unions unreasonably placed their “unexplained unwillingness to be vaccinated” above “the interests of their fellow citizens.”

During the virus’ omicron surge that started in December, nearly half of the state’s correctional staff were out sick or isolating, creating staff shortages that drove facilities to suspend visitation, limit inmates’ programs and recreational time, and require staff to postpone vacation days.

The unions had warned that requiring vaccines would drive scores of staff to quit their jobs, rather than get shots. Fisher dismissed that claim as “rank speculation” and predicted vaccines would instead reduce staffing shortages.

William Sullivan, the leader of the PBA Local #105, which represents more than 5,000 state correctional officers, said he is “extremely disappointed” by the latest decision.

“We will continue to fight for members’ rights,” he said.

State officials have tried several strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

Besides the vaccine mandate, lawmakers created an early-release program in 2020 to free nonviolent offenders early. More than 5,300 people have been released from prison since the law went into effect in November 2020. Releases stopped last summer, but restarted this month as coronavirus cases skyrocketed among inmates.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.