A New York judge has ruled that all state inmates must be “immediately” vaccinated for COVID-19. The ruling comes as the number of COVID cases in state prisons and jails continues to increase.
On Monday, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt called out the “unfair and unjust” exclusion of incarcerated people receiving the vaccine. Tuitt deemed it “arbitrary and capricious” as well as “an abuse of discretion” for New York to “irrationally” prioritize other large congregate facilities, like nursing homes and long-term care facilities, but not prisons.
Tuitt says leaving prisoners out of NY state’s vaccine rollout poses a “great risk to incarcerated people’s lives during this pandemic.” Prison staffers were approved for the vaccine in late January, with elderly inmates over the age of 65 receiving approval on Feb. 5, one month after the state opened the vaccine to anyone 65 and over.
The ruling comes one month after two Rikers Island inmates, Charles Holden and Alberto Frias, filed a lawsuit over the unfair treatment they were receiving amid the ongoing pandemic. “[Rikers Island] is very unsanitary and risky. It is impossible to stay six feet apart,” Holden said. “You eat together, you use the same showers. DOC does not supply masks within the housing area, so people are walking around without masks. I am simply asking to be treated fairly and with dignity.”
During Tuitt’s ruling, she called out NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo for opening the vaccine to people age 30 and over on Tuesday. “However, as of today, Petitioner Frias and other incarcerated individuals under the age of 30 years of age are still not eligible for the vaccine,” Tuitt said in a statement.
While Cuomo hasn’t explained why inmates were excluded from the initial rollout, the acting counsel to the governor, Beth Garvey, says the “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.”
State data shows that 9, 577 people in New York Department Of Corrections custody have COVID-19—an increase from the 306 people who tested positive at the beginning of 2021.