Soon after prisoners in New York correctional facilities sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo and won, they began receiving hard-won COVID-19 vaccinations.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision wrote in a statement to City & State that it began offering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to all incarcerated individuals on April 6. As of mid-April, 894 incarcerated individuals and 23 staff members had been vaccinated through this effort.
But then those vaccinations stopped, as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was put on pause by the federal government on April 13. The department had been using the Moderna vaccine since February.
Getting shots in the arms of inmates to begin with, however, has been a battle. On March 30, a judge ordered the state to administer COVID-19 vaccines to prisoners after a lawsuit from a coalition of advocates argued that Cuomo and state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker had unfairly denied prisoners access to the vaccine.
Meghna Philip, a staff attorney at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, one of the groups who brought the suit, was involved in every stage of the litigation and argued the case before the judge.
Philip said that her organization had tried contacting the governor and his office and advocate “in any way we could.” But after receiving no response time and time again, they resorted to legal action. When other organizations had the same problem, they banded together and brought the suit.
In affidavits submitted to the court, prisoners described their living conditions and their fears. Charles Holden, a 52-year-old man incarcerated at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, said his 50-bed dormitory had 48 beds filled. He said in the affidavit that the beds were mere inches apart, that he ate communally where inmates were unable to wear masks, and that he shared toilets, sinks, showers, televisions, telephones and recreational spaces with dozens of other incarcerated men.
Another complainant was Alberto Frias, a 24-year-old man incarcerated at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island. Frias said in his affidavit that shared items like remotes, mops and an electric kettle were not sanitized between uses. He added that incarcerated people in his unit didn’t wear masks in the shared spaces of the housing area. Even if he stayed in his cell to avoid them, he couldn’t stop other inmates or staff from entering his cell when he wasn’t there.
Philip said part of the suit cited the fact that people in every other kind of congregate setting were eligible for the vaccine and that the exclusion of incarcerated adults felt intentional. She found it mind-boggling that those in juvenile detention centers were even eligible, along with prison staff, but adults who were incarcerated (and didn’t have another qualifier for the vaccine) were not allowed to get the vaccine.
The judge, in ruling with the coalition of advocates, agreed. She wrote that the state “irrationally distinguished between incarcerated people and people living in every other type of adult congregate facility, at great risk to incarcerated people’s lives during this pandemic.” In her decision, she said there was “no acceptable excuse for this deliberate exclusion as COVID-19 does not discriminate between congregate settings.”
In response, Philip said, “It’s worth noting that the judge’s decision really underscores the fact that the state was neglecting its duties to incarcerated people for several months. It is a reflection of, throughout this pandemic, the deprioritization of the lives and safety of incarcerated people.”
Philip said that one of the complainants, Holden, actually received his first dose the day after the ruling was handed down. She added that her organization had heard from clients and advocates across the state that vaccine appointments were being made available to prisoners.
According to Jeanette Merrill, director of communications and intergovernmental affairs at Correctional Health Services, the direct health care provider in the city’s jails, CHS was the first in the state to offer the vaccine to people in custody.
“We were thrilled to be able to offer the vaccine to every patient in our care following the March 2021 court ruling,” Merrill said in a statement to City & State. “We had advocated that every person in custody should have access, not based on health or age, but due to the very nature of the congregate carceral setting.”
As of mid-April, Merrill said CHS had vaccinated more than 1,700 inmates. Before the March ruling, she said CHS received approval to vaccinate a smaller percentage of their population based on health or age. Those vaccination efforts started January 7, so by the time of the court ruling, they had already vaccinated about 1,100 people. Regarding staff, over 2,000 employees had been vaccinated.
When it comes to state-level vaccinations prior to the lawsuit, the state corrections department began vaccinating staff and incarcerated individuals 65 years and older on February 5 using the Moderna vaccine. Through that qualification, 77% of incarcerated individuals who qualified had agreed to take the vaccine.
Regarding staff, as of April 13, 7,475 staff members had gotten both doses. But because the vaccine was not mandatory, staff were not legally required to report if they had received the vaccine outside of work – so that number could be higher.
The vaccine was also already being offered to incarcerated individuals with comorbidities. Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list of eligible comorbidities, there were about 3,575 incarcerated individuals who met that criteria for the vaccine. As of April 13, 2,552 incarcerated individuals with at least one comorbidity had received the first vaccine, and 1,766 had received their second dose.
But the pandemic isn’t over, and the disease continues to be infectious. Philip issued a reminder to all as the pandemic continues.
“It’s important for the state to continue to keep in mind the importance of protecting incarcerated people, who are extraordinarily vulnerable to infection because of the circumstances that they’re living in,” she said.