This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Why does Solomon Jones want mostly white prison guards, but not disproportionately black inmates, tested for #COVID19?
Dana Pico 9/16/2021 12:01 PM

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Solomon Jones, Image: Twitter



     I get it: Solomon Jones, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, really doesn't like law enforcement, and doesn't particularly care for white people. Looking at his Inquirer author file, you'll find columns like this:

     So this morning's column came as no surprise to me:

If Pennsylvania corrections officers don’t want the vaccine, they should look for new jobs

The only people risking the health and safety of union members are the union members themselves.

by Solomon Jones | Wednesday, September 15, 2021 | 9:00 AM EDT

     From the outset, COVID-19 exposed America as a society that is more than willing to sacrifice its most vulnerable people. Now, as workers challenge vaccine mandates meant to protect those relegated to the bottom rungs of society, the most vulnerable people will suffer once again.

     Last week, the union representing correctional officers in Pennsylvania’s state prisons became one of the latest groups to officially oppose a vaccine or testing mandate. On Friday, they filed a complaint in Commonwealth Court seeking a preliminary injunction to stop an order put in place by Gov. Tom Wolf — a Democrat — requiring prison guards and other state workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. The guards say they should not have to be tested weekly unless inmates and prison vendors are, too.

     Why, I have to ask, was it important for Mr Jones to point out, in the manner he did, for emphasis, that Governor Wolf is a Democrat? He is, but that's hardly germane to the story. After all, aren't unions primarily Democratic, politically?

     The lawsuit spells it out this way: “The commonwealth’s failure to apply the ‘vaccinate or weekly test’ rule to all individuals in the congregate setting unnecessarily increases the risk to the health and safety” of union members.

     Interesting argument, but I’m not buying it. I believe the only people risking the health and safety of union members are the union members themselves.

     By refusing vaccination, and then fighting to skip out on COVID-19 testing, these state employees are not only risking their own health. They’re imposing the consequences of their decisions on a vulnerable population. Testing prisoners and vendors doesn’t stop unvaccinated guards from contracting COVID-19. It simply allows those guards to sidestep a vaccination mandate the president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association derided as “a slap in the face” while members expressed their strong opposition. More importantly, it allows them to continue to contract and spread COVID-19 among a population of incarcerated people who are unable to leave the facilities, and thus are particularly vulnerable.

     Do these three paragraphs even go together? Mr Jones states that the "only people risking the health and safety of union members are the union members themselves," but then goes on to claim that the union members are concomitantly harming the prisoners.

     There are those who believe that as convicted criminals, state inmates deserve any condition, no matter how bad, that comes from their imprisonment. I don’t, especially after watching 26 wrongfully convicted Philadelphians get released since December of 2016. Twenty-four of those innocent people were Black, which makes sense, since 47% of the state’s 37,000 prisoners were Black as of July 30, even though Black people make up about 12% of Pennsylvania’s population.

     Nowhere does it seem to occur to Mr Jones that 47% of the incarcerated prisoners have committed somewhere close to 47% of the crimes. He just throws those numbers out there as though readers will see them as obviously unfair. The Philadelphia Tribune, a black community newspaper, reported that about 86% of the city's 2020 499 homicides were black, while 84% of Philly's 2,236 non-fatal shootings were black. And, as is always the case, the shooters are around 90% probable to be the same race as their victims.

     That means this is not just a major health issue. It is also an issue of racial justice. In a criminal system where Black people are disproportionately imprisoned, and wrongfully convicted far more often than their white counterparts, I’m forced to ask a simple question: How many more wrongfully convicted Black prisoners are sitting inside, waiting to be infected with a virus that could very well give them a death sentence for a crime they didn’t commit?

     Why, then, does Mr Jones object to the union's claim that the guards shouldn't be singled out, but that everybody, the inmates and vendors, should also be tested? It would take only one vendor bringing in supplies or food, making contact with one prisoner, to pass on the virus to the incarcerated population. We already know that vaccination, while it may reduce the probability of contracting the virus, and apparently does lessen the severity of symptoms in infected persons, can still be transmitted from one vaccinated but infected individual to another person, vaccinated or not. The Centers for Disease Control stated, on August 26, 2021:

     Vaccines are playing a crucial role in limiting spread of the virus and minimizing severe disease. Although vaccines are highly effective, they are not perfect, and there will be vaccine breakthrough infections. Millions of Americans are vaccinated, and that number is growing. This means that even though the risk of breakthrough infections is low, there will be thousands of fully vaccinated people who become infected and able to infect others, especially with the surging spread of the Delta variant.

     Yet Mr Jones just waves off the union's concerns, as though they cannot be real.

     Everyone who works with a vulnerable population should be vaccinated. From teachers who work with students who are not yet eligible for vaccination, to hospital workers who are exposed to those with compromised immune systems, to prison guards who work with incarcerated people in a closed environment.

     If Mr Jones feels that way, why does he not agree that the vendors who serve the prison ought to have to be vaccinated or subjected to frequent testing? Indeed, since we know that the vaccinated can still contract and spread the virus, and if his concern is really the spread of COVID-19, why wouldn't he support mandatory frequent testing to the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike? With his greatly stated concerns for black prisoners, why isn't he concerned that the areas with the highest concentration of black residents are also the areas with the lowest vaccination rates?

     The prisoners? They can't be forced, because that would constitute assault. But Mr Jones should want them all vaccinated and frequently tested.

     If our prison guards want to work without getting vaccinated, they are well within their rights to do so, but they should be prepared to find employment somewhere else.

     The truth is simple: Mr Jones would love to see the number of prison guards cut, and cut dramatically, to force the cutting of the number of prisoners.

     Mr Jones sees this whole issue through the lens of 'racial justice,' but, in fact, racial justice is a contradiction in terms. Justice, to be justice, must be handled without regard to race, and Mr Jones does not like that concept at all.


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Dana Pico
Dana Pico is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and alumnus of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and international Commerce, and has written for the Kentucky Kernel, UK's student newspaper, as well as a few articles for the Lexington Herald-Leader, all in the days just after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. He is now retired and living on his small farm on the banks of the Kentucky River. You can find more of his writings at The First Street Journal.

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