Covid-19 Vaccine for People Inside DOC Facilities
Ensuring DOC takes the necessary steps to provide everyone with access, and a real choice, to take the COVID-19 Vaccine.
Criminal Justice Reform, Systems Reform – IMPACT LITIGATION
Since the outset of the pandemic in early 2020, Columbia Legal Services has heard from hundreds of individuals residing in the Department of Corrections (DOC) with concerns about how DOC has responded to the virus. In addition to the over 6,100 residents who have contracted the virus, people in DOC custody have been subjected to abhorrent conditions as a result of the Department’s COVID-19 response, ranging from facility-wide lockdowns, to the extensive use of solitary confinement, to limited access to toilets and showers, to restricted contact with family and loved ones, to placement of residents in decommissioned buildings without access to drinking water or ventilation.
Now with the introduction and availability of multiple effective vaccines, Governor Inslee, Department of Health (DOH), and DOC must take immediate steps to protect the vulnerable people who are living in our state correctional facilities. Immediate access to the vaccine is critical to protecting the people in DOC custody, but simply allocating the required number of doses will not be sufficient. Columbia Legal Services has received feedback from numerous individuals in a variety of DOC facilities, as well as concerned family members and loved ones, that many people are reluctant to accept the vaccine when it is offered because of fears that DOC is not providing accurate information about the vaccine, and concerns about whether they will be administering an approved vaccine to residents. The fact that the State is prioritizing correctional staff members over residents has in many cases exacerbated this distrust. It is imperative that the Governor, DOH, and DOC partner not only with each other, but also engage with authentic, respected voices in the community to help spread accurate information and build trust around the vaccine and DOC’s ability to properly administer it.
Overcoming the COVID-19 virus will require a large enough percentage of the DOC population to accept the vaccine. If DOC hopes to reach this milestone, it is essential to utilize culturally responsive resources to provide ongoing outreach, education, and medical services in conjunction with immediate allocation of the vaccine doses for DOC residents. DOC must ensure that information about the vaccine – and the vaccine itself – is provided to DOC residents in a way that is both factually accurate and designed to assuage the historic and ongoing distrust of DOC and the medical community at large. The State has made efforts to address distrust and misinformation in our communities outside of prisons, and it must also make similar efforts to engage and build trust with the individuals living in correctional facilities. See our FAQ_Rush-v-WA-DOC_April2021 resource.
Study by the CDC and University of Washington found that most inmates in jails and prisons either said they wanted to wait before getting the vaccine or would refuse one. “Culturally and health-literacy informed interventions are needed to help them feel more confident about getting vaccinated,” said lead author Dr. Marc Stern, affiliate assistant professor of health services in the UW School of Public Health.
Vaccine equity requires access, information, and trust
The swift and vast national distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has been welcome and impressive. The reality in our prisons, however, offers a stark, painful contrast. As we near a milestone this week of 50% of all adults fully vaccinated, we cannot ignore that 40% of people living in Washington prisons have already tested positive for COVID-19.
Over 14 months ago, people living in DOC custody first challenged the state to take common-sense measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our prisons and to save lives and we stood with them. Our work continues today, driven by the communities most impacted.
Five individuals who are in custody in Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities have sued DOC and the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) over how these two agencies have handled the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington’s prisons. The five plaintiffs are represented by Columbia Legal Services. They have asked the courts to allow the case to move forward as a class action representing all people currently living in DOC facilities and those who may be incarcerated there in the future.
The plaintiffs sued DOC and DOH because they have not made the COVID-19 vaccines available to everyone in DOC custody in a timely way, have failed to properly inform and educate people living in DOC facilities about COVID-19 and the vaccines, and continue to allow correctional staff who refuse the vaccines to have access to unvaccinated people living in DOC facilities. Because of their failure to control the virus, all people in DOC custody continue to live in terrible conditions. The vaccines have given DOC the opportunity to end all of the severe COVID-related restrictions it has put in place, provided enough staff and people in DOC custody become vaccinated. DOC has done little to ensure either occurs.
Immediately after plaintiffs filed the case in Thurston County Superior Court in March, they asked for the case to be certified as a class action. They also asked the court to offer the vaccine to anyone in custody who wanted it and to keep unvaccinated staff from having contact with people in custody. Unfortunately, the court refused to certify a class or order DOC and DOH to do anything. The situation in Washington’s prisons has not improved. There are both new and ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks, including one at Mission Creek Correctional Center for Women and another in DOC’s long-term care facility for the elderly and medically fragile people. Apparently, DOC is allowing unvaccinated staff access to even these most at risk people.
Since DOC continues to do too little too late, it is essential the courts step in and force DOC to take appropriate steps immediately. The plaintiffs have now asked the Washington Supreme Court to reverse the trial court’s decisions and the Supreme Court is scheduled to decide whether to take the case on June 3. Vaccines are only useful to stop the spread of COVID-19 if everyone is given reliable information about them and access to them.
Assistant Deputy Director of Advocacy