Three Plaintiffs, Candis Rush, Justin Autrey, and Gregory Steen, who are people incarcerated in prisons in Washington, filed a lawsuit, Rush v. WA State Department of Corrections, seeking certification of a class consisting of all persons in Department of Corrections (DOC) custody, and demanding the Department of Health (DOH) and DOC take all necessary steps to protect the vulnerable people who are living in our state correctional facilities by immediately making the COVID-19 vaccine available to all people in DOC custody. People living in DOC facilities, which are dense congregate settings, are at an exponentially higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The infection rate for people in prisons in Washington State is nearly 8.5 times greater than the general population. Prioritizing access to the vaccine for the approximately 15,000 people in these facilities should not be politicized.
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 (CLS) has heard from numerous individuals in several 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. In some cases, DOC staff members have actively prevented people in prisons from receiving information about the vaccine, or even shared conspiracy theories about the safety of the vaccine to dissuade people from taking it. The fact that the State is prioritizing correctional staff members over residents has in many cases exacerbated this distrust. Additionally, there are concerns with DOC’s refusal to restrict unvaccinated staff members’ contact with people in the prisons.
“It is imperative that the 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,” said Tony Gonzalez, one of the CLS attorneys representing the clients. “Time is of the essence and the State must act immediately to protect people living in Department of Corrections’ facilities.”
The lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, argues that DOH and DOC have a duty to protect the health and safety of people in prisons in Washington State, and that their failure to provide immediate access to the vaccine, their lack of educational outreach to people in custody, and the failure to protect people in prison from unvaccinated staff members is a violation of Article 1, Section 14 of the Washington State Constitution, and constitutes cruel punishment. The lawsuit identifies three necessary actions the state must take to protect people living in Washington prisons, including:
- Immediately offer the COVID-19 vaccine to all individuals in DOC custody.
- Create a vaccine education and distribution plan that provides accurate information about the vaccine and is responsive to the environment of distrust and historical abuse of people who are incarcerated by both medical and carceral authorities.
- Develop a plan to protect individuals in their custody from correctional staff who refuse to be vaccinated.
Since the outset of the pandemic in early 2020, CLS has heard from hundreds of individuals residing in DOC custody with concerns about how DOC has responded to the virus. In addition to the nearly 6,200 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, including facility-wide lockdowns, the extensive use of solitary confinement, limited access to toilets and showers, restricted contact with family and loved ones, and placement of residents in decommissioned buildings without access to drinking water or ventilation.
In developing a legal strategy, CLS held community briefings and listening sessions to hear directly from people living in prison, their families and friends, and advocates. As a result, CLS sent a letter to Gov. Inslee, DOH, and DOC on March 9 outlining community concerns and urging the State to take urgent steps given its constitutional obligation to protect the health and safety of the people in its custody against the ongoing threat posed by COVID-19. In a March 19 reply letter from DOH and DOC, the Departments indicated that they would not be implementing the steps outlined by CLS to protect people in the prisons.
Tony Gonzalez, CLS Attorney
(509) 662-9681 EXT: 124, email@example.com
Charlie McAteer, CLS Communications
(917) 696-1321, firstname.lastname@example.org