Criminal justice advocates slammed the mix messages for leaving thousands of families “wondering when their loved ones will gain access to vaccines.”

Marc Fader

Albion Correctional Facility

Criminal justice advocates have raised concerns for weeks about the lack of clarity surrounding when people in prisons and jails will get access to the new COVID-19 vaccines, and briefings with state lawmakers on Tuesday led to more confusion, according to reports. 

The confusion arose when NY1 Spectrum News reported that New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and the governor’s senior advisor, Larry Schwartz, told Democratic state lawmakers that people in state prisons and corrections officers would receive the vaccine during the next phase of distribution, phase 1b. However, the Republican minority leader in the State Senate told NY1 that the Republican conference was told it would not happen until later on, during phase 2.

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

Jonah Bruno, director of public information for the state’s Department of Health, declined to confirm what the state’s plans are for vaccinating inmates when pressed for clarification on Tuesday.

“We are currently in the midst of a comprehensive approach to vaccinating all eligible populations,” he said in a statement via email. “Corrections officers will be able to be vaccinated at community sites or other locations when they are eligible. As Governor Cuomo has repeatedly said, right now, we are focused on the population in Phase 1a.”

New York launched phase 1a last month, offering the first rounds of vaccines to healthcare workers and those who work and live in long-term care facilities, but progress has been slow so far: The city administered just under a quarter of its allotted vaccine doses during the first three weeks, a sluggish pace which Mayor Bill de Blasio attributed to the fact that some of those eligible opted not to get vaccinated. He’s urged the governor to authorize the start of phase 1b, which would apply to essential workers and those aged 75 and older.

The governor’s initial draft vaccination plan, released in October, included people in congregate settings in its second phase for vaccines, but doesn’t specifically refer to people in jails and prisons. Advocates have been pushing for the state to ensure early vaccine access for people behind bars, citing the high-risk posed by correctional facilities, where spaces are often shared and social distancing difficult. The state’s prison system has seen 27 incarcerated individuals die from COVID-19 between the start of the pandemic and Jan. 5, data shows.

On Tuesday, The Center for Community Alternatives, Release Aging People in Prison, the #HALT Solitary Confinement Campaign, and responded to the reports of conflicting information in a joint statement that slammed the mix messages for leaving thousands of families “wondering when their loved ones will gain access to vaccines.”

“After weeks of advocacy, we and tens of thousands of New Yorkers across the state are desperately hoping that the New York State Department of Health will ensure that incarcerated people—like all vulnerable New Yorkers in congregate settings—have early access to the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s the right thing to do.”

As for New York City jails, the NYC Health Department previously told City Limits that it was up to the state to determine the priority of vaccinating staffers and those incarcerated there. But Mayor de Blasio announced Wednesday that the city will start to vaccinate some Department of Corrections staff this week, and news site The City reported that jails have already begun vaccinating some medical staff, and also received permission from the state for Correctional Health Services to begin vaccinating its “highest risk patients.”

Correctional Health Services and the city’s Health Department did not immediately respond to City Limits’ requests for comment. As of Jan. 1, 6 percent of the city’s jails population—or 306 of those in custody—were positive for COVID-19.

Nicole Javorsky is a Report for America corps member.

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