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