A federal judge in Oregon ruled on Feb. 2 that the state must begin vaccinating its more than 14,000 inmates across 14 prisons against COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP virus, as cases among prisoners continue to rise.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman, in a 34-page opinion (pdf), issued a preliminary injunction requiring Oregon to include prison inmates in Phase 1a, Group 2, of its ongoing vaccination rollout.
The move grants prisoners the same priority access to the vaccine as those living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. According to the Oregon Health Authority, prior to Beckerman’s ruling, only correctional facility employees were included in this phase of the rollout.
“Our constitutional rights are not suspended during a crisis,” Beckerman wrote in her opinion. “On the contrary, during difficult times we must remain the most vigilant to protect the constitutional rights of the powerless. Even when faced with limited resources, the state must fulfill its duty of protecting those in custody.”
Beckerman’s order follows a lawsuit filed in federal court on Jan. 21 by seven state prisoners who joined an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed in April 2020, that sought to ensure Oregon vaccinates inmates statewide.
A spokesman for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s office, Charles Boyle, told The Hill that the Democratic governor will not challenge the ruling.
“The court’s decision is clear, and the state has decided not to appeal,” Boyle said Wednesday.
“With the court’s ruling requiring an accelerated timeline and making clear that vaccinations must be offered to adults in custody with Phase 1a prioritization, we will move ahead with a weekly approach that will integrate adults in custody into our Phase 1a distribution plans,” he said.
According to nonprofit criminal justice news site The Marshall Project, which tracks COVID-19 deaths in prisons, Oregon ranks 18th in terms of virus-linked fatalities, with 42, as of Jan. 26.
Florida meanwhile has recorded the most inmate deaths of any state prison system—205 as of Jan. 26—and Gov. Ron DeSantis has rejected the idea of prioritizing prison inmates for COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of the state’s seniors.
“Whose priorities are you looking out for? We’re looking out for our parents and grandparents here in Florida,” the Republican governor said during a press briefing on Feb. 1. “There’s no way you’re going to get some prisoner a vaccine over a senior citizen. And so our seniors-first promise is ironclad.”
In Oregon, Phase 1b, which includes school staff and teachers, began on Jan. 25. State residents aged 80 and above will be eligible for vaccinations starting Feb. 8, while other elder groups will be able to receive the vaccine in the coming weeks.