A New York judge has ordered the state to provide COVID-19 vaccines to all incarcerated people, saying that officials “irrationally distinguished between incarcerated people and people living in every other type of adult congregate facility, at great risk to incarcerated people’s lives during this pandemic.” Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, says advocates have been pushing the state “since the beginning of the pandemic to prioritize the health and safety of incarcerated people,” but those efforts were met with silence. “It’s unfortunate that it took court intervention in order to make the state do what it’s supposed to do,” says Elijah. She also addresses calls for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill passed by lawmakers called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, that would end the excessive use of solitary confinement.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. If you’d like to get our Daily Digest, the headlines of the day, our stories and also news alerts, you can sign up at democracynow.org or text the word “democracynow” — one word — to 66866.
Well, we end today’s show looking at how many states have excluded people held in prisons and jails from life-saving COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. Now a New York judge has ruled this is unjust and unfair for people held in one of the largest correctional systems in the country. In a strongly worded decision Monday, New York state Supreme Court Justice Alison Tuitt ordered the state to immediately vaccinate incarcerated people, and said officials, quote, “irrationally distinguished between incarcerated people and people living in every other type of adult congregate facility, at great risk to incarcerated people’s lives during this pandemic.”
This comes as people who work in New York’s prisons and jails became eligible to receive the vaccine in January. Justice Tuitt’s decision also came as Governor Cuomo announced all New Yorkers over the age of 30 can now access the vaccine. She ruled incarcerated people even younger than 30 should also be offered the vaccinations now.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two people held in New York City’s Rikers Island jail, 24-year old Alberto Frias and 52-year-old Charles Holden, who lives in a dorm with 48 of 50 beds filled, with the beds inches apart. The complaint says he shares, quote, “eating spaces, toilets, sinks, showers, televisions, telephones, and recreational spaces” of other incarcerated men. At meal time, he eats at a communal table surrounded by other incarcerated people who cannot wear masks while they eat. In short, quote, “Every aspect of [his] daily life … is communal. [He is] not able to practice social distancing,” unquote.
Currently, about 10% of people held at Rikers have COVID-19. New York jails about 34,000 people. Only about 1,300 prisoners who are senior citizens or have preexisting conditions have already been fully vaccinated.
For more, we go to Soffiyah Elijah, the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, which supports people impacted by the criminal justice system. She’s also an attorney who’s represented many political prisoners, some of whom are now in their sixties, seventies and eighties and contracted COVID.
Soffiyah Elijah, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this court ruling.
SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Judge Tuitt’s decision was extremely significant. Families and advocates have been begging, pleading and trying to prod the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and Governor Cuomo since the beginning of the pandemic to prioritize the health and safety of incarcerated people. And all of our efforts seem to have fallen on deaf ears. It’s unfortunate that it took court intervention in order to make the state do what it’s supposed to do, and we applaud the courage of Judge Tuitt in issuing this very important decision.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering if you could talk about the population in New York state. Clearly, the prison system of New York state has had a sharp drop in the number of incarcerated people. But also, those incarcerated have grown increasingly older, haven’t they? The number or percentage of the inmates who are in the most vulnerable population?
SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Yes, the median age of the prison population, not only in New York but across the country, has increased. That’s due in part to harsh sentences that have been handed down for decades in our country and in this state. And the people who are incarcerated who are older are at greater risk because of their health conditions. So, we have a virtual ticking time bomb with respect to the health of incarcerated people and older incarcerated people. And it took a very long time for New York state to finally even offer testing to the incarcerated population, and even longer to offer vaccinations for the incarcerated population.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about a bill that was passed by the New York state lawmakers that would end the excessive use of solitary confinement. Governor Cuomo has less than 24 hours to sign the bill. And the Albany Times Union editorial this week called for a halt of this prison torture. Could you talk about the prospects of the governor signing this bill?
SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Well, we certainly support signing the bill. I think all informed advocates and well-meaning people understand that the use of solitary confinement is torture. It is a shame that it’s taken this long for this issue to rise to the level now where it’s sitting on the governor’s desk.
Whether or not the governor is going to sign it, I think, still remains to be seen. Certainly he ought to. Advocates are gearing up today to increase the pressure on him to sign this bill. If he doesn’t sign the bill, he is basically signing off on and agreeing to torture inside prisons and jails in this state.