A New York judge has ordered New York to immediately begin offering coronavirus vaccines to any and all inmates held in the state’s prisons.
CBS News reports that the ruling ends a nearly two-month dispute between inmates and the state.
Prisoners, notes CBS, had earlier filed a lawsuit against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s Commissioner of Health, Howard Zucker. The complaint’s sole aim was ensuring that inmates could have equitable access to coronavirus vaccines.
In their lawsuit, the inmates recounted how jail and prison officials were deemed eligible for COVID-19 inoculations in winter. But even as guards and staff began receiving vaccines, prisoners were largely left out of the state’s distribution plan.
In her Monday ruling, Justice Alison Y. Tuitt found that New York’s decision to exclude most inmates from vaccination was “by definition arbitrary and capricious.”
“There is no acceptable excuse for this deliberate exclusion,” Tuitt added.
Prior to Tuitt’s ruling, New York only offered coronavirus vaccines to inmates over age 65 or with serious comorbidities.
All other prisoners were denied access to potentially lifesaving vaccines, in spite of federal studies showing that coronavirus spreads easily and quickly behind bars.
In January, New York partially followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on vaccinating persons living in shared housing facilities, including youths in juvenile detention. However, that guidance still excluded adult prisoners.
Alexander Horwitz, executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice, had earlier criticized the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) for its pandemic response.
“Nearly half of all states have included incarcerated people in their COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans and have taken various measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in their correctional facilities,” Horwitz said. “Meanwhile, (DOCCS) has failed to keep New Yorkers safe throughout this pandemic for over a year. DOCCS has continually ducked responsibility and obfuscated public information — all to avoid exposing their complete unwillingness to test and vaccinate incarcerated New Yorkers.”
According to Truitt, New York “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.”
Truitt further said that New York’s decisions were “unfair and unjust,” and “not based in law or fact.”
The governor’s office has since issued a statement clarifying its stance: since New York recently expanded vaccine access to all adults, it will now begin offering vaccines to prisoners, too.
“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,” Acting Counsel to the Governor Beth Garvey said in a statement.