‘My body, my choice:’ FCI Pekin employees are protesting the federal vaccine mandate

Local News

PEKIN, Ill. (WMBD) — Local corrections officers are fighting back against the federal vaccine mandate.

Monday, Nov. 8 is the deadline for federal employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to comply with the rule. But employees at the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) in Pekin were protesting instead.

The protest was organized by members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) local chapter 701.

“The mandate is to have your vaccine by [Monday],” said Thomas Kamm, President of Local 701 and cook supervisor at FCI Pekin. “Because you have to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22, which they say fully vaccinated is 14 days after you get your second dose.”

Kamm said multiple employees tried to get medical or religious exemptions from the vaccine but never heard back from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

One protestor said he is allergic to ingredients in the vaccine. Another, Material Handler Nekeya Sylvester, said she has strong religious convictions against the vaccine.

“I’ve been at this institution for almost 20 years, [and] I have five years left before I retire,” said Sylvester. “I’d like to continue my years of service to this country, but I would also like to be respected as an individual and be able to exercise my rights to choose. My body, my choice.”

She also said many staff members at FCI Pekin contracted COVID-19 last year.

“A lot of our staff have natural immunity,” she said. “So they feel like they shouldn’t be forced to be vaccinated, or working alongside inmates who are not forced to be vaccinated.”

Kamm said the prison is severely understaffed, and the mandate would drive away current and future employees.

“There are people that are refusing to get the vaccine, and we’re worried about if they get terminated, then our overall staffing numbers are going to be lower,” he said. “It’s also going to prevent a pool of applicants from applying here.”

Protestors also complained about mandatory overtime at the prison. Some workers are placed as correctional officers temporarily in a process called augmentation. Kamm said this means other operations in the prison go unmanned.

“Being in limbo is very stressful. We work in a very stressful environment already,” Sylvester said. “So being in limbo with those exemptions not being responded to– that’s kind of tough. So we would like those to be expedited so we can get an answer.”

WMBD reached out to the Federal Bureau of Prisons but has not heard back yet.

We will update the story when more information becomes available.

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