Should Prisoners Get Early Vaccines?

Prison graves

Graves were dug in April at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon for two inmates who died of COVID-19 at other prisons and whose remains were not claimed. (Beacon Prison Action)

Advocates ask state to develop plan

Cases of COVID-19 among inmates in state prisons have tripled and among staff more than doubled since November as the state weighs a plan to vaccinate tens of thousands of prisoners and detainees, including at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon.

New York expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines to prison staff, parole officers and local jail staff on Jan. 11. But a plan to vaccinate prisoners is “something that we’ve been talking about, standing up and operationalizing,” said Melissa DeRosa, secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during a briefing on Jan. 22. 

Residents 65 and older are currently eligible to receive vaccines in New York. The state has about 1,100 prisoners who are 65 or older and about 250 who are 75 or older, said DeRosa.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to start to deploy resources, obviously, in the context of fairness, given that the demand is so great across the public,” she said. 

The rise of COVID-19 infections in New York’s prisons has mirrored the spike statewide, where Dutchess and other counties are facing record-high caseloads after infections dipped in the summer before proliferating again in the fall. 

Of 4,883 inmate cases as of Wednesday (Jan. 27), 67 percent have been confirmed since Nov. 4. Another 12 inmates have died since that date, raising the number of prisoner deaths to 30. That includes six at Fishkill Correctional Facility — the most at any state facility — and three at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville.

Prison staff have also been hit hard, with 4,236 infections among guards and other employees, with 64 percent confirmed since Nov. 4. Seven prison staff have died of complications of COVID-19. 

The state prison agency suspended visits to prisoners as of Dec. 30. Earlier that month it suspended the transfer of prisoners from county jails to state facilities.

Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, which is authorized to investigate conditions inside state prisons, said the facilities are “congregate-care facilities” whose employees return to their homes and communities after every shift. That is one reason that vaccinating prisoners is an “essential public health measure,” she said. 

“Just like any congregate-care facility, people in prison need to be protected and the surrounding communities also benefit,” she said. 

As the first vaccines neared federal approval, prisoners were included in Phase 1 of vaccinations in eight states, not including New York. New Jersey began vaccinating prisoners and staff in December, and North Carolina began offering shots to state inmates aged 75 or older last week. Utah on Monday (Jan. 25) vaccinated 79 state inmates who are 70 or older. 

New York’s expansion earlier this month of vaccine eligibility covered not only guards and parole officers at state prisons but corrections officers at local jails, workers at local probation offices and juvenile detention facilities. The plan does not mention state prisoners or detainees who are at local jails. 

Each of the two vaccines approved for use requires that each person receive two shots given weeks apart. Both must be stored in freezers. During a recent call between the state prison agency and prison-reform advocates, there was a discussion about waiting for a vaccine that doesn’t require freezers or two shots, said Scaife.

Some prisoners have sued to be released, citing their risk of becoming infected.  

In one case, decided on Jan. 18, a state court ordered the state to vaccinate Edward Mackenzie, a 65-year-old inmate at Adironack Correctional Facility in Essex County. “MacKenzie has a ‘fundamental’ legal right to reasonable and adequate medical care, as well as a clear legal right to receive the vaccine due to his age,” the court ruled.


4 thoughts on “Should Prisoners Get Early Vaccines?

  1. I have never been a bleeding heart toward prisoners, especially those guilty of hardcore crimes. I have always been of the camp that feels prisoners should be forced to perform heavy and hard work, breaking boulders into small gravel, so to speak, and therefore, hopefully not wanting to revisit the prison again.

    However, I feel that prisoners, like nursing-home residents, are sitting ducks. Then too, the guards will become infected… not good! My wife and I are 82 (not in the best of health) and await our number to be called. We do have the possible safety of our home and are able to take great precaution when out… true, there’s no guarantee. Just wish than New York State knew how to make things work.

  2. The state department of corrections has yet to roll out a plan to get all of its parole officers, correction officers and other essential staff, and inmates vaccinated. Parole officers have had to rely on the kindness of the New York State Police and county sheriffs to get vaccinated. Downstate officers are scrambling to find an appointment to get vaccinated, while other prison staff and inmates sit and wait. It’s unacceptable. There are vaccines but no plan.

    Perez is a retired senior parole officer and president of the New York State Fraternal Order of Police Parole Lodge 027.

  3. Vaccinate the corrections staff and civilian employees; the prisoners can get vaccinated after the seniors and persons at risk. I think it would be disgusting if prisoners got vaccinated before our seniors, nursing-home patients, essential workers and others at risk.

  4. Your article included a new example of bureaucratic red-tape argot. Apparently, the state of New York has identified the vaccination of prisoners as, according to the secretary to Gov. Cuomo, “something that we’ve been standing up and operationalizing.” Has anyone, either in or outside of state government, the faintest idea what this means?

    It is clear that the failure to vaccinate inmates means corrections officers and staff are more likely to carry the virus home to their families and communities. The state has taken responsibility for the inmates’ medical conditions. It is not corrective to withhold preventative services from imprisoned inmates as punishment, or to “favor” the same inmates by providing it to them.