NY Judge Orders COVID-19 Shots for All State Inmates

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Illustration by Sergio Santos via Flickr

Calling the failure to vaccinate incarcerees an “abuse of discretion,” a New York judge has ordered all the individuals held in the state’s prisons, jails and other detention facilities to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The order by New York State Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt in The Bronx makes New York one of the small number of states that have extended vaccination protection to inmates, reported the New York Times.

“There is no acceptable excuse for this deliberate exclusion,” the judge said.

The order comes after a lawsuit filed early February against Gov. Andrew Cuomo that urged the state to open up vaccinations for inmates. At the time the lawsuit was filed, only correctional staff were eligible to receive it.

Starting Tuesday, all state residents aged 30 and older will be eligible for the vaccine, according to  a press release issued by Cuomo’s office.

“Our goal all along has been to implement a vaccination program that is fair and equitable, and these changes will help ensure that continues to happen,” said Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the Governor, in the release.

According to the release, over 19,246 vaccinations have already been administered to the incarcerated population since Feb. 4, when the state started the vaccine rollout to staff and a small number incarcerees who were considered vulnerable because of medical conditions.

While the state boasts of its progress, COVID-19 cases haven’t slowed down in the prison system. At least 1,100 people incarcerated in prisons have tested positive this month alone.

Crowded facilities continue to be “ticking time bombs” for those incarcerated and staff who work with them.

The question of whether or not the incarcerated population will receive the vaccine with priority has been hotly debated long before doses reached the United States, and New York isn’t the first state to have an order calling for the incarcerated population to receive the vaccine.

The state will join others in the country who have made public their vaccine plan for the incarcerated population, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas and Arkansas.

Although seen as a win for human rights activists, many narratives are the same across the country. Prisoners in many states have been eligible for months, whether due to age, prior health conditions or living in a congregate setting, but still haven’t been vaccinated.

While advocates have urged that the incarcerated population should have priority to the vaccine, many state and local facilities have fallen to the backburner as more of the general population gets vaccinated first.

Data available since last summer that proved that those in congregate settings such as prisons were not only more susceptible to the virus, but also more likely to suffer more harmful side effects.

And while a number of people held in jails or prisons will refuse the vaccine, whether based on their own personal wishes or the “government’s history of medical experimentation on prison populations and people of color and the dearth of information available to people behind bars,” advocates say the gap points more to a need for government action.

Some facilities have resorted to other measures to curb the spread of the virus, like a Washington D.C. jail that’s been on lockdown for nearly a year, with some inmates living isolated from others for 23 hours a day.

“Prior to COVID-19, these facilities already denied detainees access to adequate nutrition, health care, hygienic supplies, and fresh air — a situation worsened by a woefully harmful and inadequate response to the pandemic,” the American Civil Liberties Union recently said, in calling for government officials to prioritize the incarcerated population.

“The faster we get vaccines into detention settings, the faster we can protect everyone, both inside and out.”

Read more: Early Vaccine for Incarcerated Called ‘Ethical Imperative’

Panel Urges Early Access to COVID Vaccine for Inmates, Correctional Staff\

Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

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