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Located in Canon City, the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, shown here in a Dec. 9, 2020, photo, is the state’s oldest prison. Built in 1871, it preceded the state’s admission to the Union by five years. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Employees working in state prisons will no longer be required to receive COVID-19 vaccinations as the Colorado Department of Corrections works to fill more than 1,700 vacancies.

The state’s prison system is still “highly recommending” all staff — new or existing — receive a vaccine and booster, a CDOC spokeswoman said in an email confirming the policy change. All unvaccinated staff will continue to be tested daily and the prison system will still offer vaccines and boosters for employees and inmates. 

“Given the widespread uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines, the availability of effective therapeutics, and the accrual of high rates of vaccine and infection-induced immunity of the population in our state, we are now at a new phase of this pandemic,” spokeswoman Annie Skinner said in an email earlier this week confirming the policy change. She did not return a request to further explain what prompted the change. 

The rollback in the department’s vaccine mandate comes as the department tries to chip away at a backlog of vacancies that has grown to nearly a quarter of the CDOC’s 8,000-person workforce. The staff shortage has sparked safety concerns among workers at state prisons. 

Many employees are forced to work “massive amounts” of overtime as a result of the shortage, said Hilary Glasgow, executive director for WINS, the state workers union. 

“This isn’t new, but it’s worse,” Glasgow said Tuesday. “It’s the worst it’s ever been.”

The union, which represents the “vast majority” of CDOC employees, is negotiating solutions aimed at fairly distributing overtime among employees, filling vacancies and boosting retention, she said. Removing the vaccine requirement wasn’t among the suggestions. 

“I really think DOC is just trying to pull out all the stops to make sure that they can get staff in. We’re for that. We appreciate that,” Glasgow said. “We just want to see other steps taken.”

The vacancies have forced staff to close the library at the state’s largest prison, Sterling Correctional Facility, because its librarians are now working security, along with case managers and teachers, Glasgow said. 

The shortage has raised safety concerns inside and outside of the prisons, she said, pointing to two employees who died in car accidents on their way home from their mandated overtime shift. A third employee crashed on his way home after he fell asleep at the wheel. The 20-year-old is now paralyzed and doctors say he will never be able to walk again, Glasgow said. 

“It’s a matter of necessity, I think, but it’s also like, what is this costing us?” she said. “I think both the staff and the incarcerated population deserve better than this.”

The department isn’t alone in its struggle to hire. About a quarter of the state’s positions are currently vacant, Glasgow said. 

At the start of the year, the state prison system lowered the minimum age of prison guards to 18 from 21 in an effort to draw more candidates, and this summer it hosted a series of hiring fairs where qualified applicants were given on-the-spot job offers. 

Since July 1, CDOC has hired nearly 300 employees, according to the department. As of Tuesday, 1,703 open positions remained. The vaccine policy was changed last week. 

Reported COVID cases in state prisons have declined since the height of the pandemic, with active cases now at about 21 inmates and 14 workers, data shows.

Inmates are not required to be vaccinated, but are encouraged to do so, Skinner said. As of Tuesday, 61% of inmates have received at least the first dose of the vaccine. About 80% of CDOC staff is vaccinated, ​​Skinner said. Since the vaccine mandate went into effect last August, 748 staff members were granted religious or medical exemptions for the vaccine. All unvaccinated staff are tested daily using a rapid test, while all workers, regardless of vaccination status, are testing weekly with a PCR test.

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...