The COVID-19 pandemic is a persistent threat to everyone. The resurgence of COVID via the delta variant is a reality with rising infection rates, serious illness and deaths, and state hospitals at capacity. This rise in cases shows why vaccine access, ongoing education efforts, and bridging the gap with unvaccinated members in our community are vital in the efforts to contain COVID.

All of this is even more important in the context of prisons. Earlier this year, Columbia Legal Services (CLS) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Department of Health (DOH) to ensure timely vaccine access and culturally appropriate COVID education for all people in DOC custody, as well as protection from unvaccinated DOC staff, who are the primary carriers of COVID into the prisons. DOC and DOH’s recent attempt to dismiss the case was rebuffed by the Court. In its order, the Court wrote:

“Plaintiffs have demonstrated that discovery may produce evidence to support their claims, including evidence related to the effectiveness of Defendants’ COVID policies, whether Defendants have explored options to protect people in custody from unvaccinated staff members, the accuracy of Defendants[’] publicly displayed data, and the effectiveness of Defendants[’] COVID/Vaccine education campaign.”

Tony Gonzalez, CLS Attorney, responded to the court’s decision, “We are pleased that the court recognized our clients’ right to investigate their claims. DOC’s response to the ongoing pandemic continues to be woefully inadequate. We are very concerned about the large number of unvaccinated staff entering DOC facilities every single day. In the past month, nearly 250 DOC employees have tested positive for COVID-19 – a nearly 700% increase from the previous month. DOC is only reporting a 40% vaccination rate amongst their staff, which has remained stagnant for weeks. DOC must do a better job to mitigate the very real risk of infected staff coming into the prisons and triggering new rounds of major outbreaks among people in custody.”

Although Governor Inslee recently mandated vaccines for all state employees, including DOC staff, implementation of the mandate and adherence to it will be crucial to the protection of people in DOC custody. CLS staff will continue to closely monitor any developments.

Media Contacts

Tony Gonzalez, Attorney

Adriana Hernandez, Communications