By Kevin Deutsch
A coalition of public defenders and civil liberties advocates filed court papers Thursday demanding the state immediately offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all incarcerated New Yorkers, who have been excluded from the government’s vaccine rollout.
The petition, filed in the Bronx on behalf of all prisoners in city jails, alleges that Governor Cuomo’s refusal to include all incarcerated people in the pool of vaccine-eligible New Yorkers — while simultaneously approving vaccinations for all Department of Correction employees — violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.
Last month, Cuomo initiated vaccination Phase 1b, which made DOC staff eligible for vaccination. But most incarcerated people remain ineligible for the life-saving shots, despite exponentially higher rates of coronavirus infection in city jails.
The petition cites public health guidance from the Center for Disease Control, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, and affidavits from medical professionals, all urging the swift vaccination of incarcerated people in the interest of public health.
The experts explicitly advise states to vaccinate jail and prison staff and incarcerated people at the same time.
The filing names two Rikers Island prisoners, Charles Holden and Alberto Frias, who fear the unsafe conditions in DOC custody.
“The past year has been the scariest of my life. I have asthma, and every day that passes without being vaccinated leaves me anxious that I might be the next person to get sick, or that I may pass COVID onto other people,” said Frias. “[Rikers Island] is very unsanitary and risky. It is impossible to stay six feet apart. You eat together, you use the same showers. DOC does not supply masks within the housing area, so people are walking around without masks. I am simply asking to be treated fairly and with dignity.”
Holden said he is disgusted by the government’s discrimination against incarcerated people.
“The virus is getting worse and numbers are going up,” said Holden. “People around me are getting sick, there’s a high rate of infection, and it feels unsafe. My dorm is nearly full, we sleep in beds that are inches apart and people are unable to wear masks,” Holden said. “People are getting sick around me. We need the vaccine now or it will get worse. The irresponsibility of the state to overlook incarcerated people is despicable.”
Lawyers for the prisoners said Black and Brown New Yorkers make up an overwhelming majority of New York’s incarcerated population, and the failure to vaccinate them compounds existing inequality.
“We are holding Governor Cuomo accountable to the demands of science, public health and racial justice, ” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, Director of the Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project. “New York’s choice to withhold the vaccine from the people confined to dense, dangerous congregate settings of jails and prisons ignores the unambiguous public health guidance that calls for priority vaccinations in this vulnerable setting, and exacerbates the vastly disproportionate toll of this virus on Black and Latinx communities.”
Justine Olderman, Executive Director of the Bronx Defenders, said the state has routinely disregarded the health and safety of incarcerated people during the pandemic.
“Withholding the vaccine from people being detained in congregate settings goes against CDC guidelines. It also goes against the moral responsibility the state has towards the people it incarcerates,” Olderman said. “Governor Cuomo must make the vaccine immediately available to any incarcerated person who wants it.”