ALBANY — New York’s prison inmates age 65 and older are being offered vaccinations for COVID-19 — but criminal justice reformers argue the state’s effort leaves out the majority of the incarcerated population.
They’re demanding that all incarcerated individuals get the chance to be inoculated immediately, arguing the state’s own infection data shows people held in prisons and jails are at grave risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
“All of the public health experts say it is clear as day that everybody in congregate settings, including incarcerated people and the staff working in the prisons and jails, should be vaccinated,” David George, director of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign, told CNHI. His group was one of more than 30 organizations that this week sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo imploring him to open vaccination eligibility to all people held in detention facilities.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its guidance on the subject last month, emphasized that outbreaks in prisons “are often difficult to control given the inability to physically distance, limited space for isolation or quarantine, and limited testing and personal protective equipment resources.”
“Jurisdictions are encouraged to vaccinate staff and incarcerated/detained persons of correctional or detention facilities at the same time because of their shared increased risk of disease,” the CDC stated.
According to data updated Tuesday by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), 5,806 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since March. Of those, 5,413 have recovered.
A total of 32 state inmates have died from COVID-19. Eight employees of the prison system have also died, as have seven persons under the supervision of the parole system.
6,070 SHOTS SO FAR
In response to a CNHI inquiry, Thomas Mailey, spokesman for the prison agency, said vaccinations began Feb. 5 for the department’s staff and inmates 65 and older. So far, 6,070 shots have been administered.
The first shots for those groups are expected to be completed by week’s end. They are scheduled to get the second dose 28 days after the first shot was administered.
Plans are being worked out with the state Department of Health (DOH) to begin vaccination in March for inmates who have comorbidities but are younger than 65.
As for the rest of the inmate population, Mailey said: “DOCCS continues to work with DOH on a plan to offer the vaccine to the remainder of the incarcerated population when they become eligible.”
Cuomo has said New Yorkers who are not included in the current eligibility groups are expected to qualify for the doses once there are sufficient supplies.
More than 3.4 million shots, including both first and second doses of the vaccine, have been administered across the state to date. An estimated 10 million New Yorkers are now eligible for the vaccine.
JONES WEIGHS IN
Because getting vaccinated is optional, prison system staffers are not required to report to the agency whether they have gotten inoculated, Mailey noted.
State Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, a retired corrections officer who tracks prison issues closely, said that to achieve herd immunity within the prison system, it would be beneficial to offer vaccinations to all staff and inmates.
“I want to concentrate on getting our corrections officers and civilian staff vaccinated first, because they are the ones who have to go home to their families and they can contribute to the community spreads as well,” Jones said.
But he added communities near prisons benefit as well when vaccinations are extended to inmates, since infections in the prisoner population are lumped in with the public health data of counties, and a rise in virus positivity rates could slow the easing of pandemic restrictions on businesses.
NOT GOOD POLICY
The criminal justice reform groups and community organizations pushing for inmate vaccinations argue the state’s efforts to contain the virus threat have been inconsistent.
“New York State’s decision to provide vaccines to people in congregate settings like shelters and nursing homes but not jails or prisons, and to correctional staff but not incarcerated individuals, is simply not good public health policy,” they said in their letter to the governor.
The Legal Aid Society and several other advocates for prisoners are also demanding swift action from the Cuomo administration. They contend that the decision to not make vaccinations available to all inmates has created hotbeds for viral transmission and endangers Black and Latino prisoners, who are the largest groups within the state prisons.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org