Court Orders New York State to Offer Vaccine to Prisoners

March 30, 2021 Updated: March 30, 2021

A Bronx judge ruled on Monday that New York unfairly excluded state prison and jail inmates from access to the CCP virus vaccine and must immediately begin offering them the jab.

Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Tuitt said in an order (pdf) that the Respondents—Howard Zucker, Commissioner of Health for New York State, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo—acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in excluding inmates from COVID-19 vaccine priority group 1b, “especially in light of the fact that Respondents approved vaccinations for all other congregate living facilities, including juvenile detention facilities.”

“This was an unfair and unjust decision by Respondents, was not based in law or fact and was an abuse of discretion,” she wrote.

Tuitt directed the two officials to modify the eligibility category and “immediately authorize incarcerated individuals as a group for vaccination.”

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit (pdf) brought against the two New York State officials by two Rikers Island inmates, Charles Holden and Alberto Frias. The pair of inmates argued that detention facilities had not only become a “hotbed” of infections that put prisoners at elevated risk of contracting the virus, they have also fanned the flames of the COVID-19 outbreak in the broader community given the daily flow of people in and out of jails and prisons.

“Incarcerated people are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 and should be prioritized for vaccination,” they wrote, arguing that officials had unfairly and arbitrarily drawn distinctions between inmates and people in other congregate settings.

Tuitt agreed, writing in her order that officials “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.”

Following the order, New York will become the second state after Oregon to begin offering the vaccine to all inmates. Prisoners aged 65 and older across New York State already began receiving inoculations last month.

Cuomo’s office said that starting Tuesday, New York State’s COVID-19 vaccine eligibility would be expanded to all incarcerated individuals in the state aged 30 and over.

“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,” Beth Garvey, acting counsel to the governor, said in a Monday statement.

She noted that 19,246 New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision staff and inmates have been vaccinated across the state.

According to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, as of March 27, 2021, there have been confirmed COVID-19 infections among 4925 staff, 6273 incarcerated people, and 323 parolees. Of these, 8 staff members, 35 inmates, and 8 parolees have died due to COVID-19.

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