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_August_2021 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.
CASE UPDATE: RUSH V. DOC
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.
Tony Gonzalez, Attorney
Adriana Hernandez, Communications