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.

 

Legal Documents Below

TEAM

Nick Allen
Nick Allen
Deputy Director of Advocacy
Alex Bergstrom
Alex Bergstrom
Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist
Elvia Bueno
Elvia Bueno
Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist
Stephanie Chavez
Stephanie Chavez
Legal Assistant
Janet Chung
Janet Chung
Advocacy Director
Amy Crewdson
Amy Crewdson
Attorney
Claire Eldredge-Burns
Claire Eldredge-Burns
Legal Intake Assistant
Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez
Attorney
Adriana Hernandez
Adriana Hernandez
Communications Coordinator
Maureen Janega
Maureen Janega
Paralegal
Laurel Simonson
Laurel Simonson
Attorney
Brandy Sincyr
Brandy Sincyr
Advocacy and Community Engagement Specialist
Nick Straley
Nick Straley
Assistant Deputy Director of Advocacy

Litigation FAQ: Rush v. DOC

Criminal Justice Reform, Systems Reform | Impact Litigation |
'Litigation FAQ: Rush v. DOC'

A list of general questions for people in DOC custody, and their family, discussing Columbia Legal Services’ recently filed lawsuit

Updated: April 2021   

Please note: These materials have been prepared for general information purposes only and are not intended as legal advice or opinions. An attorney should be contacted for advice on specific, individual legal issues.

  1. What is the lawsuit about?

The lawsuit, Rush v. WA State Department of Corrections (DOC), is a proposed class action against the DOC and Department of Health (DOC), and it has three goals:

  • Immediately ensure that enough vaccines to vaccinate the entire prison population are allocated to DOC facilities throughout Washington,
  • Make sure DOC and DOH are providing people in DOC custody with the information they need to make an informed choice on whether they want to take the vaccine, and
  • Make sure DOC has a plan in place to prohibit DOC staff who choose not to take the vaccine from being in contact with people who are currently incarcerated.
  1. Why was the lawsuit filed?

Throughout the last year, Columbia Legal Services (CLS) has heard from people inside of DOC and their family, friends, and community advocates about the terrible conditions inside of DOC prisons due to COVID outbreaks and DOC’s inability to keep them safe. This lawsuit is based on all the community input we received, and our investigation based on this input has led us to conclude that DOC is violating people in prisons’ constitutional rights by not immediately providing them access to the vaccine and by failing to protect them from staff that refuse to be vaccinated.

  1. Didn’t Governor Inslee say people in prison would be eligible for the vaccine starting March 31, 2021?

Yes, the Governor did recently make that announcement. However, that does not mean people inside of prison will receive the vaccine. In fact, DOH and DOC have refused to explain when people in prison will actually have access to the vaccine. And, while they are refusing to explain any further, DOC continues to allow unvaccinated staff members to enter and exit the DOC facilities every day and interact with people on the inside. This is a sign that COVID will be an ongoing and serious problem.

  1. What about release from prison?

Large-scale meaningful reduction of the prison population as a means to protect people in prison from COVID is likely not an option at this time through the courts. The Washington Supreme Court in the Colvin v. Inslee case that CLS filed last year, decided that releasing people from DOC prisons to increase the effectiveness of social distancing and masking was up to the discretion of the Governor. While the Governor did decide to release some people in April 2020, he has not made any other announcements about plans for additional release. In other words, unless the Governor decides to release more people, there is likely not much we can legally do at this time to secure widespread release of people due to COVID.

  1. What about all the harm people in custody have already suffered?

This pandemic is not over. Every day we learn more about COVID, its impact on health, the effectiveness of the vaccines, and the numerous variants that have already been identified, which could result in more waves of outbreaks. Through this lawsuit, we are trying to help ensure that people in the prisons are no longer subjected to the harms they have endured over the last year and to prevent DOC and the State from causing more harm going forward.

  1. How can I help or how can I be a part of the lawsuit?

Concerned and impacted communities have already contributed a great deal by providing us with relevant information over the last year to help us better understand what is going on inside the prisons. However, if you have a family member, friend, or loved one who is incarcerated and you have information you think we should have related to the lawsuit, please email Alex Bergstrom at alex.bergstrom@columbialegal.org. We cannot guarantee that we will use your information, but we may follow up with you if we need to request additional information.

If you are in prison, you can try to reach us by phone or mail:

  • The number for our confidential collect call line is: 206-382-3399. Currently, due to capacity issues, we are not able to take a high volume of calls. Therefore, the collect line is only being used for calls that we have scheduled with people in the prison or to respond to serious emergencies. Writing to us remains your best option for receiving a response, and if we need to follow up with you to schedule a call based on your letter, we will do so.
  • To write to us via U.S. postal mail (label the envelope “Legal Mail”), send your correspondence to: Columbia Legal Services, 101 Yesler Way, Suite 300, Seattle, WA 98104. Please include your name and DOC # and any information you would like for us to know about your current situation. As noted above, we currently have significant capacity issues due to our modified operations during the pandemic, so it may take us several weeks to reply.
  1. Where can I find out more about the lawsuit and stay up to date on what is going on?

We have created a specific page on our website (bit.ly/Rush-v-WA-DOC) that will track the progress of the lawsuit and provide updates.

  1. What if I am in prison and I don’t want to take the vaccine?

We are not medical professionals, so we cannot tell people what they should do. We do believe that everyone should have access to all the most accurate and up-to-date medical information they need to be able to make informed decisions about the vaccine. People should not be forced to just take the vaccine, and they should also understand the risks of any decision they make. Our lawsuit is advocating for people to have access to the vaccine, and to have all information necessary to make a meaningful, well-informed choice on whether to accept it, free from punishment and retaliation.

For questions, contact Tony Gonzalez, Columbia Legal Services Attorney,
at
tony.gonzalez@columbialegal.org