OLYMPIA — A lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of three state prison inmates seeks to compel the state to immediately offer the COVID-19 vaccine to incarcerated individuals and to bar Department of Corrections employees who refuse a vaccine from having any contact with those in custody.
The lawsuit, which names the state departments of corrections and health as defendants, also seeks a court order requiring that any future COVID-related vaccines or boosters be given to those in correctional facilities “as soon as they become available to anyone in Washington.”
“This case is about ensuring that our most vulnerable communities in Washington are not forgotten in the allocation of the new COVID-19 vaccines,” begins the suit. “It is imperative that there be no further delay in offering the vaccine to people in prison who are at an exponentially higher risk of infection than the general population of Washington State.”
Columbia Legal Services filed the suit in Thurston County Superior Court on behalf of inmates Candis Rush in Washington Corrections Center in Gig Harbor, Justin Autrey in Monroe Corrections Center and Gregory Steen of Clallam Bay Corrections Center. The suit seeks certification as a class action on behalf all inmates.
It argues the Department of Health and the Department of Corrections have a duty to protect the health and safety of people in prisons and failing to provide them immediate access to the vaccine and to protect them from unvaccinated staff members constitutes cruel punishment in violation of the state Constitution.
As part of the action, the inmates want corrections officials to develop a plan to protect incarcerated individuals from correctional staff who refuse to be vaccinated.
“That is particularly concerning,” said Tony Gonzalez, one of the attorneys on the case, because those workers go in and out of facilities and “they are potentially the biggest source of transmission” of the coronavirus.
The lawsuit also seeks an injunction requiring the two departments create “a robust, culturally responsive outreach and education strategy” to address “issues of misinformation and to build trust around the COVID-19 vaccine.”
“There is a clear lack of information,” Gonzalez said. “People don’t know if the vaccine is for them or not.”
The Department of Corrections did not respond to the suit’s specific assertions.
In an email, corrections spokesperson Jacque Coe wrote, “We will be working with the Office of the Attorney General to assess and respond to the lawsuit by Columbia Legal Services.”
The department, she said, follows the state health department’s vaccine eligibility schedule. Under that plan, incarcerated individuals and staff in corrections facilities become eligible Wednesday. .
Eligibility does not guarantee a shot. Vaccinations will be conducted based upon availability of doses, she said, adding acceptance of the vaccine in an individual choice.
As of Tuesday, a total of 9,927 doses of the Moderna vaccine had been administered to staff and inmates at state prison facilities, according to the Department of Corrections. Of those, 6,821 are first doses and 3,106 are second doses. The department does not list the number of employees and inmates receiving shots.
To date, correctional facilities have been hit hard by COVID-19.
Last April, a riot involving about 100 inmates in a low-security wing at Monroe Correctional Complex broke out following one of the first outbreaks in the state prison system.
That led to the state Supreme Court directing Gov. Jay Inslee to take action, which led to early release of more than a thousand inmates to reduce crowding, and the potential for spread of the virus.
As of Tuesday, there have been 6,190 confirmed cases and 14 deaths in prisons and work release facilities including 551 at Monroe.
The prioritization of who is eligible to get a vaccine has been a point of contention. Unions representing teachers, grocery workers, restaurant employees and other front-line workers have publicly appealed to be moved up in line.
When Washington moves into the next phase Wednesday, about 5 million residents will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. About 1.2 million more will join them by May 1, or sooner.
That will make the situation worse, inmates argued.
“Expanding the numbers of people who will be ‘eligible’ will only further dilute the chances that people in prison receive immediate access to the vaccine,” their suit states.
They contend the state has received more than enough doses to vaccinate everyone in its correctional facilities “without significantly limiting access to the vaccine for other high-risk populations.” And it suggests those vaccinations could occur in one day and there would still be tens of thousands of doses available for the rest of the state.
Prior to filing the suit, Columbia Legal Services put its demands in a March 9 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, Secretary of Health Umair Shah and Secretary of Corrections Stephen Sinclair and the secretaries of health and of corrections. That letter gave them 10 days to deliver a plan of action.
In a March 19 response, the secretaries wrote, “Unfortunately, because of limited vaccine supply to date, there has not been enough to offer it to everyone and we have had to make difficult decisions about who to offer the vaccine to first.
“We are hopeful that as supply coming into the state increases, more Washingtonians will be able to access the vaccine,” they wrote. “Our goal is to vaccinate as many Washingtonians as quickly and equitably as possible.”