Justice Alison Y. Tuitt of the State Supreme Court in the Bronx has ruled that New York must immediately begin to offer COVID-19 vaccines to all incarcerated people in the state’s prisons and jails.
This comes after a report revealed that New York jails are now more crowded than they were at the beginning of the pandemic despite efforts to release hundreds of people to prevent overcrowding.
Both prisoners and guards have filed claims that the conditions inside are unsanitary and dangerous. A class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of all prisoners in New York City jails in February that highlighted how inmates were kept from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Social distancing is nearly impossible in some jail units and PPE is scarce or unavailable. Data offered by the Empire State’s Correctional Health Services has shown that in January and February infections and exposures in the jails had reached their highest levels since last spring.
New York recently announced new vaccine eligibility guidelines but failed to mention the nearly 50,000 people currently incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails, a development that has caused severe backlash from law officials.
Tuitt’s late Monday ruling states that leaving the US’ inmate populations outside of the ongoing public vaccination campaign is “unfair and unjust” and an “abuse of discretion.”
The judge wrote in her ruling on the matter that state 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.”
“There is no acceptable excuse for this deliberate exclusion,” she underscored.
— Aaron Littman (@aaronlittman) March 29, 2021
It was announced on Monday that all adult residents of New York would be eligible to receive a vaccine by April 6 but the measure left many unsure of how the effort would apply to the incarcerated population. However, Tuitt’s ruling now guarantees that prisoners will be addressed as part of that population.
Efforts to put incarcerated people ahead of the general population for vaccine dosage has drawn pushback from some lawmakers, including officials from the Kansas State Senate where Republicans demanded a revision of resolution No. 1707.
In a similar suit filed last month, a federal court judge from Oregon ordered the state prison system to offer doses to all incarcerated people, making it the first successful legal battle of its kind and encouraging states nationwide to follow suit.
Representatives from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in New York and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have not yet commented on the judge’s ruling, and it is unclear whether the state will appeal. Cuomo is currently under fire for his own handling of the state’s response to the pandemic and his concealment of the number of nursing home deaths.