THURSTON COUNTY, WA, May 27, 2022 — A Washington Superior Court judge has dismissed Rush v. DOC, a lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services (CLS) against the Department of Corrections (DOH) and Department of Health (DOH) for failing to protect people in their care from COVID-19. People in prison have been seeking protection from COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. In this latest round of challenges, plaintiffs asked that DOC and DOH take three steps: 1) make vaccines available to all residents, 2) provide protection from unvaccinated staff, who are the primary carriers of COVID into the prisons, and 3) provide accurate and culturally appropriate COVID education to all people in DOC custody.
Today’s ruling reflects that DOC has complied with the first two steps requested, however DOC still falls short of truly protecting people in its care. “I think that if DOC had been more proactive about our safety, there would have been more incentive about getting vaccinated. They didn’t do enough to address misinformation among their staff, and that misinformation trickled down to the people living here,” said Candis Rush, currently incarcerated in Gig Harbor, in her declaration for the court.
Since the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, people inside prisons have faced heightened risk of exposure, repeated outbreaks, prolonged lockdown conditions, and an overall lack of effective precautionary measures. Unlike the general public, people in prison are unable to exercise individual safety choices, regardless of their personal health risks or beliefs. Additionally, in the absence of outbreak prevention, repeated lockdowns strip away what minimal movement, social interactions and productivity are allowed under normal conditions.
Candis Rush and four other plaintiffs sued in March 2021 in response to DOC delaying vaccines to people in their custody and refusing to enforce staff vaccination. DOC has since taken these essential steps, unfortunately amid many delays and missteps. As a result, vaccination rates inside prison trail those of the general population by 25%, leaving everyone more vulnerable.
While it is an improvement that vaccines are now available in prisons, DOC has unfortunately given people in its care plenty of reasons to mistrust that vaccination is in their best interest, including administering the wrong medication and expired doses, giving incorrect dosage due to poor record-keeping, allowing misinformation to spread, failing to provide appropriate education, and an overall inability to prevent outbreaks that continue to deteriorate daily life.
At the time of this ruling – more than a year since the lawsuit was filed – all three facilities where plaintiffs reside are in lockdown due to ongoing COVID outbreaks. These lockdowns can last months and mean confinement to one’s unit 22 hours a day, unable to go to meals, visit family, or participate in work or any of the group programming aimed at rehabilitation and reentry.
This is the second lawsuit CLS has filed on behalf of people seeking meaningful protection from COVID-19 in DOC facilities. “DOC had to be mandated to meet our clients’ most essential needs, and will need to be forced to address their other failings that keep people at risk,” said Tony Gonzalez, attorney with Columbia Legal Services. “We will continue to do all we can to protect people in prison from COVID-19 as well as from the harm of avoidable, prolonged lockdowns. What they want is no different from what all of us want more than two years into the pandemic.”
Tony Gonzalez, CLS Attorney
(360) 662-9681, firstname.lastname@example.org
Caitlin Lombardi, Communications