As COVID-19 outbreaks rise in New Hampshire prisons and jails, many correctional officers who come and go from the facilities daily remain unvaccinated.

The N.H. Department of Corrections doesn’t require prison guards to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and remains unaware of exactly how many of its staff have received a shot or not. Aside from data collected at vaccine drives early in 2021, the department relies on staff to self-report whether they’ve been immunized.

Tina Thurber, a spokesperson for the department, said based on these numbers, officials estimate about 58 percent of prison staff are vaccinated.

Incarcerated people, who often live in densely populated facilities with limited opportunities to socially distance, are one of the groups at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19. A 2020 study out of the American Medical Association found that people in jails and prisons were infected at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate.

As of Thursday, 86 inmates in New Hampshire-based federal, county, and state prisons were positive for COVID-19.

“DOC continues to encourage all of its staff to get vaccinated,” Thurber said. “We also encourage all residents to be vaccinated and to continue to use all COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including social distancing where possible, wearing a mask, good hand hygiene and cough etiquette.”

Several of New Hampshire’s neighbors have started to impose mandates on correctional officers to insulate incarcerated people from rising COVID numbers. Vermont’s correctional officers’ union, which represents a group that is 80 percent vaccinated, began negotiating the terms of a vaccine mandate for state employees in August. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced a vaccine mandate for 44,000 employees, including correctional officers, that does not offer any testing or masking alternatives.

Gov. Chris Sununu, and ardent opponent of government vaccine mandates, has made it clear that a state-imposed vaccine mandate is unlikely in New Hampshire.

“I’d like to see everyone vaccinated but I also understand I can’t just wave a wave a magic wand and force people,” he said at a press conference this week. “It has to be their choice. Maybe it’s going slower than we anticipated, but that’s the individuals’ freedom.”

The State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire has indicated they might oppose a vaccine requirement even if the state happens to hand down a mandate.

“The best approach to encouraging universal vaccination is through education and outreach, not making vaccination mandatory,” the union wrote on its website.

Correctional officers also do not fall under the scope of the federal government’s vaccine mandates for private businesses with more than 100 staff members and other congregate living settings.

All nursing homes in New Hampshire, which are similarly at risk due to the congregate living arrangement, will likely require their staff to be vaccinated, thanks to a federal mandate that makes vaccination a prerequisite to receiving Medicare funds.

Thomas Adams, a board member and corresponding secretary for the N.H.-based Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, said though his organization hasn’t taken an official position on mandatory vaccines for corrections officers, many of the members agree that a mandate would be the best way to protect high-risk inmates from COVID-19.

“We’re trying to balance the risk of in the community, and the importance of keeping the virus at bay, and the individuals’ right to refuse,” he said. “The community is high risk in this situation so it seems to me the state has a compelling reason to make requirements in congregate settings.”

This article is being shared by a partner in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.