A State Supreme Court Judge wrote in a ruling on Monday that New York’s decision to leave inmates out of its vaccine rollout was “an abuse of discretion.”
Justice Alison Tuitt ordered the state to start offering the COVID-19 vaccine immediately to all incarcerated individuals in state prisons and jails.
“This decision by the Respondents to exclude these incarcerated persons from eligibility for the vaccine was unquestionably arbitrary and capricious, especially in light of the fact that Respondents approved vaccinations for all other congregate living facilities, including juvenile detention facilities,” Tuitt wrote.
According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), there have been more than 6,270 reported COVID-19 cases among inmates since the start of the pandemic. Around 4,925 corrections officers have also tested positive for COVID-19.
On January 11, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that groups living in congregate settings, including homeless shelters, and corrections staff, would be eligible for the vaccine. But most incarcerated individuals were still excluded.
“This was an unfair and unjust decision by Respondents, was not based in law or fact and was an abuse of discretion,” Tuitt wrote.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 35 inmates and eight staff members have died from COVID-19.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s acting counsel, Beth Garvey, sent a statement seemingly in support with the ruling, writing that the state will expand eligibility to include all incarcerated individuals in state and local facilities.
"The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision began vaccinating staff and incarcerated individuals on February 5, and as of March 27, more than 19,246 vaccinations have been administered,” Garvey said. “Tomorrow, the state will expand eligibility to include New Yorkers age 30 and older for the general population, and we will expand eligibility to include all incarcerated individuals whether in state or local facilities. 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.”
The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, The Bronx Defenders, The Legal Aid Society, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Brooklyn Defender Services brought forward the lawsuit and said this ruling confirmed the state's decision to leave inmates out was “dangerous and discriminatory.”
“Governor Cuomo's decision to withhold the vaccine from the people confined to dense, congregate settings of jails and prisons always ignored the unambiguous public health guidance that called for priority vaccinations in this uniquely dangerous setting, and exacerbated the vastly disproportionate toll of this virus on Black and Latinx communities,” Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccinating everyone at correctional facilities simultaneously.