Hundreds of prison staff submitted religious exemptions ahead of vaccination deadline

By: - November 4, 2021 5:50 am

Brian Williams, NDOC’s Deputy Director of Programs, discussing safety during the COVID-19 pandemic in August. (NDOC photo)

More than 12% of Nevada prison staffers have requested exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine, the vast majority of them citing religious beliefs, according to Nevada Department of Corrections officials.

Prison officials said 285 of the 2,372 correctional staff have submitted vaccination exemptions ahead of the Nov. 1 deadline requiring all personnel to be vaccinated against Covid. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford were told during an Oct. 25 Board of Prison Commissioners meeting that 227 of those requests were for religious exemptions. 

When asked by the Nevada Current, Nevada Department of Corrections officials wouldn’t say if they had received any more submissions after the meeting or how many employees quit now that the mandate has taken effect. 

In an email, NDOC spokeswoman Teri Vance said the department won’t offer specific answers until next week. 

As of late last week, Vance said “about 75% of those who work at DHHS had provided proof of vaccination and about 55% of NDOC employees had provided proof of vaccination.” 

“Those numbers continue to rise as more employees turn in the appropriate paperwork and the paperwork is processed and handled by human resources,” Vance said in a statement. “Additionally, both DHHS and NDOC are working through potential religious and medical exemptions. State agencies are required to follow the progressive discipline process, which could take up to several months, and all efforts will be extended to each unvaccinated employee to comply with the regulation.”

Acting NDOC chief of human resources Kimberly Smith said 64% of staff was partially or fully vaccinated as of Oct. 25. 

The department has struggled to boost vaccination rates among staff since the Spring, and Sisolak had called low numbers “atrocious and not acceptable” during a July Board of Prison Commissioners meeting. 

Fearing a potential new wave in Covid cases, the Nevada Board of Heath voted Sept. 10 to require corrections staff and state health workers to become fully vaccinated by Nov. 1, but also allowed for religious and medical exemptions. 

In addition to the 227 religious exemptions, Smith said 26 requests are medical exemptions and 29 are “medical-religious” requests. 

Three religious exemptions had been rescinded and another three requests hadn’t specified the type of exemption being sought. 

“NDOC has created an exemption committee to handle the receipt of religious and medical exemptions,” Smith said. “The tracking and monitoring of this report is done as exemptions are received with weekly meetings scheduled for deliberation and discussion.”

Two medical exemptions had been approved and seven requests were pending approvals “as their documents needed to be verified.”

“We have not denied any vaccination requests at this time,” she told commissioners. “To date, no one has been disciplined, including suspensions and reassignments to other agencies.”

Under a timeline officials outlined during the Oct. 25 meeting, Smith said staff who weren’t vaccinated in time were expected to receive a written reprimand this week.

“On Nov. 9, NDOC will start specificity for charges of suspension, which could take up to 30 days,” Smith said.  “On Nov. 16, NDOC will start specificity of charges for termination. While we see this discipline as aggressive, we do not anticipate terminating any employee.”

At the Board of Health’s September meeting, several correctional staff threatened to quit following the mandate. While there have been threats by unvaccinated workers nationwide, some data suggests few leave their jobs as the result of vaccine mandates. 

As of Oct. 22, there were 611 vacancies within the Nevada Department of Corrections. 

Officials told commissioners at the meeting they were “prepared to handle any anticipated work stoppages as the result of any potential protests.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.