New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan has excluded prisoners, one of the city’s most vulnerable populations. The Legal Aid Society accused Gov. Cuomo and New York State Commissioner of Health Howard Zucker of neglecting CDC guidelines in a lawsuit filed last Wednesday. The suit argues that the state chose not to vaccinate prisoners at the same time as prison guards. Correctional facilities, which are designated as “other shared housing settings,” should grant prisoners widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines. These shared housing settings “by their very nature place individuals at high risk for contracting and transmitting the virus.”
In January, the infection rate in prisons was double that of the general public. Cuomo has only allowed vaccinations for prisoners 65 and over or those with medical conditions, which excluded the general prison population. This is unacceptable, considering that residents in other shared living settings have not been subject to the same eligibility restrictions. City officials are neglecting their responsibility to grant equal vaccine access to high-risk groups, and setting a dangerous precedent that disregards the lives of incarcerated New Yorkers.
Prisoners in New York City are subject to low standards of sanitation and are unable to social distance. At Rikers Island, several prisoners have disclosed the scarcity of essential resources such as soap, disinfectants and sanitation wipes. Official reports released in late 2020 found that 63% of the city’s jail population is residing in an area exceeding 75% capacity, preventing any form of effective social distancing. These conditions directly contributed to the spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated individuals. Across the state, 97% of prison COVID-19 cases originated in overcrowded prisons, and 84% of people in custody live in high-occupancy facilities. The absence of immediate vaccination efforts jeopardizes the health and safety of the city’s prisoners.
To combat overcrowding, the city implemented early release efforts. From March to April 2020, there was a 30% decrease in the daily jail population. However, the prison population increased again due to a significant rise in pretrial detentions. In November, 87% of the city’s incarcerated population had not been convicted of a crime.
On average, prisoners are awaiting trial for three months longer than before, which places them at higher risk of exposure to the virus. Juan Cruz, a former prisoner at Rikers Island, died of COVID-19 after his trial hearings were pushed back six times. Of these pretrial detainees, many are in for technical parole violations, including minor infractions such as missing appointments. Even Gov. Cuomo has noted the concern of incarcerating such individuals who “present no danger to our communities.” It’s not ignorance that prevents the vaccination of incarcerated people in New York City, but a willingness to overlook the plight of fellow community members.
This failure of our city officials is not passive, but rather an active denial of efforts to improve conditions. A judge declined to order city jails to improve their hygiene regimens in February in a lawsuit filed on behalf of several former Rikers prisoners. Furthermore, reports have found that the NYC Department of Correction underreported the number of prisoners who died of COVID by at least half. The Board of Correction, the city’s correctional oversight committee, found a lack of social distancing, a failure to distribute masks and denial of basic medical treatment were all responsible for the deaths of three prisoners in April 2020. It is clear that efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in prisons have been insufficient at every step, and now the need for vaccines is more pressing than ever.
The consequences of the pandemic for incarcerated New Yorkers extend beyond contracting the virus. Experts have highlighted issues regarding prisoners’ mental health during COVID, which may be exacerbated because of the inability to feel properly protected from the virus. In a letter from New York Doctors to Gov. Cuomo, the authors warn that “the physical stress and strain from imprisonment itself leads to worse health outcomes.”
Furthermore, failing to vaccinate inmates directly exacerbates disparities that have plagued vaccine accessibility. Official reports reveal that Black and Latino residents make up the smallest share of the city’s vaccinated population, despite suffering from higher rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. Historically, the state’s prison population has been disproportionately Black and Latino, which is largely consistent with trends across the country.
There is a crisis in our city’s jails. The distinctions drawn between correctional facilities and other congregate living settings are not only arbitrary, but they are also inherently discriminatory. If the goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure equal access to vaccines, New York City should extend access to all imprisoned individuals as soon as possible.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 29, 2021 e-print edition. Email Lucy Yama at [email protected]