New York Under Fire for Vaccinating Prison Staff, Not Inmates

People in the corrections system have been eligible to get the Covid-19 vaccine for the past month — so long as they are personnel.

A security fence surrounds inmate housing on the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

BRONX (CN) — A coalition of New York City public defenders and advocates sued Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state health department Thursday over the decision to exclude incarcerated people from early distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

With people flowing into and out of detention centers daily, “jails and prisons have not only become hotbeds themselves but have fueled the spread of Covid-19 through the larger community,” the petition filed in Bronx County Supreme Court states. 

December report by the Associated Press and Marshall Project backed up this observation, showing that 1 in 5 detainees in state and federal prisons had tested positive for the coronavirus, making infection rates four times as high as those in the general population.

Despite the heightened risks of infection and death, however, New York did not include detainees themselves when the state entered Phase 1B of vaccine distribution. The phase guidelines list seven tiers of correctional staff, including parole officers, prison guards and rehabilitation workers, who can be offered vaccines along with the residents of homeless shelters. 

Thursday’s petition is led by two men being held in the jail complex on Rikers Island. Discussing the lawsuit, 24-year-old detainee Alberto Frias said he fears for his health because of jail conditions. 

“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,” Frias said in a statement. 

Calling it impossible to keep the recommended 6 feet from others while incarcerated, Frias said Rikers Island is “very unsanitary and risky.”

“You eat together, you use the same showers,” Frias said. Masks are not supplied in housing areas, “so people are walking around without masks. I am simply asking to be treated fairly and with dignity.”

For the petitioners, their treatment fails to align with Governor Cuomo’s proclamation to ensure equitable vaccine access for Black, brown and poor communities.

“Covid has revealed from the very beginning the underlying injustice and inequity in this society,” Cuomo said back in November, as quoted in Thursday’s filing. “Covid highlighted what we knew but it raised it to a point where it was obnoxious and blatant how we have disparities and inequalities. Why was the Covid infection rate so much higher in communities of Black and Brown people? Because they’re health care deserts. There were health care disparities to begin with. People weren’t getting as much regular care. They had underlying issues, underlying illnesses, and Covid both in the infection rate and the death rate disproportionately affected the Black and Brown population.” 

Nearly 60% of people in custody in New York City are Black, according to city data. The complaint states that more than 90% of people housed in city correction facilities for those confirmed or likely exposed to Covid-19 are either Black or Hispanic. 

“New York’s current vaccination policy discriminates against our clients on a basic level,” said Libby Fischer, an attorney at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in a statement. “It says that their lives, their families, and their neighborhoods matter less than those of other New Yorkers.” 

In the petition, Frias and fellow detainee Charles Holden point to advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others who have “explicitly counseled states to vaccinate staff and incarcerated/detained persons of correctional or detention facilities at the same time because of their shared increased risk of disease.” (Emphasis in original.) 

The American Medical Association, along with former U.S. attorneys general Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales, have called for prison detainees to be put at the same priority level as police and correctional officers. 

Thomas Mailey, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said in an email Thursday that there are 1,075 people in the system aged 65 and older. “DOCCS is in the process of preparing to vaccinate that population consistent with statewide guidance for that age group,” Mailey said. 

The department said it cannot comment on pending litigation, and that it is “still working with [the New York Department of Health] to develop a plan, as part of the New York State Covid-19 Vaccination Program, for the incarcerated population.”

The suit follows a Tuesday report from the New York Daily News that says Jeffrey Epstein’s ex-girlfriend and alleged co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell, 59, received a Covid-19 vaccine on Jan. 21. 

Maxwell, charged with six counts related to Epstein’s decades-long predation, is accused of helping groom young girls for Epstein. She was denied bail and is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. 

Vaccines were reportedly offered to all women detained at MDC, not to all male detainees, even those who are at high risk for complications from Covid-19.

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