Earlier this month, the state began vaccinating incarcerated people 65 and older. But advocates, as well as local officials who run the city’s jails, want eligibility expanded to include all inmates, citing the extra risks posed by correctional facilities.
After months of advocates calling for New York to prioritize vaccine access for people in jails and prisons, the state began inoculating individuals 65 years and older in its custody on Feb. 5 — more than three weeks after that age group officially became eligible for COVID-19 shots under state rules.
Now, health experts and justice advocates say the state is still failing to adequately protect its incarcerated populations from COVID-19, reiterating their demand that New York expand vaccine eligibility to all people behind bars, citing the extra risks posed by correctional facilities. They point to other states, like Connecticut and Pennsylvania, which prioritized incarcerated people in their earliest phases of vaccine access, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which says it has doled out 52,534 doses so far and is working to ensure all staffers and those in custody have the chance to get vaccinated “at the earliest opportunity.”
“The public health basis for prioritizing vaccine access in prisons and jails is clear. By their very nature as congregate facilities, they are hotbeds for the spread of disease,” dozens of local stakeholders wrote in an open letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which advocates delivered to his offices on Wednesday. “The most basic precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19—social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), regular handwashing and disinfection cleaning —are not available to people in correctional facilities.”
There are approximately 33,376 incarcerated people housed across the state’s 52 correctional facilities, according to the most recent population numbers for February. As of this week, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) says it has administered more than 6,750 vaccinations, according to a spokesperson for the agency — though DOCCS did not respond to queries about how many of those doses went to its staffers, and how many to those in custody.
“We expect to complete the first vaccines for all interested staff and incarcerated individuals 65+ by the end of the week,” a DOCCS spokesperson told City Limits in a statement Wednesday. The agency expects to begin offering vaccines to people behind bars with health comorbidities — a group which became eligible under state rules on Feb. 15 — in March.
DOCCS is working with the state Department of Health on a plan to offer the vaccines “to the remainder of the incarcerated population when they become eligible,” the agency spokesperson added, but did not specify when that would be.
Meanwhile, the NYC Department of Correction, which operates New York City jails, has been pushing the state for approval to offer vaccinations to all of the approximately 5,317 people in its custody. Correctional Health Services (CHS), which operates medical care for the city’s jail facilities, first began vaccinating its highest-risk patients on Jan. 6, a month before the state DOCCS did. CHS expanded access to those over 65 a week later, when Cuomo added older New Yorkers to the eligibility list, and started offering it this week to patients with State-approved comorbidities, according to a spokesperson.
As of Feb. 12, 429 people in city jails had been vaccinated, including 237 patients who received their second dose.
“Since December, CHS has advocated to make the vaccine available to all people in custody and looks forward to receiving State approval to offer the vaccine to all its patients,” CHS Spokeswoman Jeanette Merrill said in an email.
Critics of DOCCS’ handling of the vaccination rollout say those behind bars qualify for access under Cuomo’s own prioritization guidelines, which includes people living and working in “congregate settings” as particularly at risk for COVID-19 infection. People living in similar group settings, such as nursing homes and shelters, are already eligible under state rules. Earlier this week, the Cuomo administration approved vaccine access for youth over 16 living in juvenile detention, youth shelters and foster care facilities, the news site THE CITY reported.
“Jails and prisons have become a hotspot for COVID-19. They’re undeniably congregate settings, meaning by the governor’s own vaccination plan, all incarcerated people should have access to the vaccine,” Marvin Mayfield, an organizer with the Center for Community Alternatives, said during a press briefing last week. “The lives of our incarcerated friends and family matter.”
There have been 5855 confirmed COVID-19 cases among people incarcerated in state prisons since the start of the pandemic; 5532 of those people are now “recovered and out of isolation” and 33 others have died, according to DOCCS data. On the city level, 9 percent of the city jail population — or 454 people — have been infected with COVID-19 since the crisis began, and there were 87 active infections in city jails as of Feb. 7, according to NYC Board of Correction documents.