While the governor’s draft vaccination plan includes those in congregate settings in its second phase for vaccines, it doesn’t specifically refer to people in jails and prisons. That lack of clarity has drawn the concern of criminal justice advocates.

Scott Heins for the Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

The first coronavirus vaccine in New York State, administered to a healthcare worker last week.

Last week, the first New Yorkers were vaccinated against COVID-19: frontline healthcare workers along with nursing home residents and staff. 

Now that vaccine distribution is underway, it’s still unclear where people in jails and prisons fit into New York’s prioritization phases, despite advocates who are calling on the state to ensure early vaccine access for those behind bars, citing the extra risks that come with incarceration.  

As City Limits reported last week, the number of people in New York City jails has increased in recent months, amid existing concerns from advocates about how both the city and state have addressed the threat of the pandemic to those incarcerated. Jails and prisons are congregate environments, where people are often in close contact and do not have the same freedom as people outside to make their own decisions about how to protect themselves against the virus.

While the governor’s draft vaccination plan does include “those living in other congregate settings” under the next phase of vaccinations, it does not specifically mention people in jails and prisons, despite using more specific language for some other groups listed under the second phase, such as “first responders (fire, police, national guard),” “teachers/schools staff (in-person instruction), childcare providers,” and “other essential frontline workers who regularly interact with public (pharmacists, grocery store workers, transit employees, etc.) or maintain critical infrastructure.”

The plan, released in October, does not refer directly to incarcerated people in any of its phases. An analysis of state plans by the Prison Policy Initiative, released earlier this month, concluded that New York would “probably” include those in jails and prisons in the second phase of its vaccination rollout, to people in congregate settings, but notes that this is only “implied” by the draft plan.

That lack of clarity is what’s worrying criminal justice advocates like Katie Schaffer, director of advocacy and organizing at the Center for Community Alternatives, which is calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release a public plan for how the state will vaccinate those in its correctional facilities.

Read our coverage of New York City’s Coronavirus crisis.

“The governor … has not only failed to ensure that incarcerated people will be prioritized with other people in congregate settings, but has failed to even answer the question,” she says.

When reached for clarification, the state’s Department of Health referred City Limits to the governor’s October draft plan, but did not respond to a request for further information. The city’s Health Department directed City Limits to the state’s department of health, saying the state sets the priority matrix. The city also noted that the federal government has not yet confirmed its recommendations beyond the first group of people that should receive the vaccine (healthcare staff at greatest risk and people in long-term care facilities.)

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, met virtually on Sunday and discussed which groups should get priority access next, ultimately recommending essential frontline workers and people over 74. While correctional workers were included among frontline workers listed in the recommendation, it does not specifically mention incarcerated people, according to the New York Times. CDC director Robert Redfield is reviewing the panel’s recommendations and has yet to issue official guidance from the agency; either way, who to vaccinate next will ultimately be decided by individual state governments. Some states, like Massachusetts, have put their inmate populations at the front of that list.    

Last week, more than 250 of the country’s infectious disease, public health and legal policy experts sent an open letter, organized by UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, to state governors and other local officials urging them to prioritize incarcerated populations and correctional staff.

Schaffer says the governor’s silence so far on vaccine access for people behind bars is indicative of a larger pattern of inaction when it comes to addressing the threat of the COVID-19 crisis in jails and prisons.

“We have seen New York state, the federal government,states across the country engage in both policies of mass incarceration that target communities of color and low-income communities, and then failed to protect the health and well-being of incarcerated people,” she  says. “Despite incredibly high rates of COVID in jails and prisons across the country … we’ve seen a real failure in response.” 

Nicole Javorsky is a Report for America corps member.