New York state has to make all people incarcerated in its prisons and jails eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, the state Supreme Court says.
Judge Alison Tuitt in the Bronx ruled Monday that the state’s exclusion of incarcerated people from COVID-19 vaccine eligibility was “arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.”
People in prisons and jails are at particularly high risk of contracting the virus, since living in congregate settings makes it extremely difficult to maintain social distance the way public health officials recommend.
Charles Holden, 52, described in the lawsuit behind Monday’s ruling how living in detention on Rikers Island made it impossible for him to be socially distanced. He said about 48 of 50 beds were filled in his dorm and that he shared eating spaces, toilets, showers, phones and recreational areas with other men. At meal times, they were at communal tables without masks, and at night, they slept in beds “only inches apart,” he said.
There are over 14,000 people in jails across New York state and over 30,000 in prisons. Since the start of the pandemic, over 6,200 incarcerated people have been infected with COVID-19, and 35 have died.
Black and Latinx people, who are disproportionately incarcerated in New York’s prisons and jails, also face disproportionately high rates of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus.
A spokesperson for the state department of corrections told HuffPost that starting Tuesday, incarcerated people over age 30 would be made eligible for the vaccine, following state guidelines for the general population. It was not clear if the state would be appealing the judge’s ruling, which ordered that all incarcerated people of any age be made eligible immediately.
While New York began vaccinating corrections staff in mid-January and later started vaccinating incarcerated people 65 and over, as well as those with health conditions that placed them at high risk, the vast majority of people incarcerated in the state were still ineligible for the vaccine.
On Monday, New York state announced that all adults will be eligible for the vaccine by April 6.
Other states have varied in making incarcerated people eligible for coronavirus vaccines: Massachusetts made all incarcerated people eligible for the vaccine early on. California, which saw massive outbreaks of COVID-19 in its prisons, has so far inoculated over half of its prison population.