Open Letter for COVID-19 Vaccine Access in Prisons and Jails
February 24, 2021
Governor Andrew Cuomo
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224
Dear Governor Cuomo,
We, public health professionals, members of the COVID-19 New York Working Group, community advocates, and concerned New Yorkers, urge you to immediately provide the COVID-19 vaccine to all incarcerated individuals. In doing so, we echo the call of incarcerated individuals and their families; New York legal aid organizations; the American Medical Association; the New York City Bar Association; faith leaders; and many others.
While we appreciate your recent decision to vaccinate adults over age 65 in state custody, it is insufficient to address the public health crisis in New York’s jails and prisons. In addition, the distribution and administration of the vaccine to people who are incarcerated must include vaccine education and require the informed consent of recipients.
The public health basis for prioritizing vaccine access in prisons and jails is clear. By their very nature as congregate facilities, they are hotbeds for the spread of disease. The most basic precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 - social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), regular handwashing and disinfection cleaning - are not available to people in correctional facilities. Instead, crowding, lack of access to personal protective equipment, and inadequate medical care are the norm. Researchers have called jails and prisons “epicenters of COVID-19 transmission” that “present an ideal setting for infections to spread.” This is even more true as more contagious COVID-19 variants develop and spread. Carceral facilities have been the source of deadly variants of other illnesses, such as strains of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, and there is no reason to think the same will not be true for COVID-19.
This same study noted that “community rates of infection will not decrease if jails are not a central focus of public health strategies to mitigate the spread of the epidemic.” And indeed, what happens in jails and prisons affects what happens in the community. Guards, lawyers, workers, and people entering and leaving custody move between the facilities and the community regularly. They can and do bring the virus into the facility and home to their families. An analysis of data from the Cook County Jail in Chicago, for example, found that almost 16% of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state at the time of the study were linked to people coming in and out of the jail. Last fall, Greene County experienced a community outbreak leading to school and business closures traced to failure to control the spread of COVID-19 in the Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie.
Research by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that the number of new COVID-19 infections over the summer of 2020 was greater in counties and multicounty areas with larger and more concentrated incarcerated populations. In total, they estimate that mass incarceration led to 560,000 additional COVID-19 cases nationwide in just three months.
In addition, prisons, jails, and detention centers do not have the medical facilities necessary to treat severe COVID-19 cases. These individuals must be brought to nearby hospitals, but many facilities are located in rural areas where there are fewer healthcare resources overall.
Incarcerated individuals are also more likely to have chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, or asthma, that makes them vulnerable to worse COVID-19 outcomes, including severe illness, long-term disabilities, and death. According to the Department of Justice, an estimated 40% of incarcerated people have a chronic medical condition. Moreover, the physical stress and strain from imprisonment itself also leads to worse health outcomes. One public health study, for example, argued that incarcerated individuals should be treated as though they are 10 to 15 years older than their biological age, due to the effects of incarceration.
Yet in the face of science, the State and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) were slow to implement regular testing and provide PPE and have not taken meaningful efforts to reduce the prison population. The results of this inaction are clear: continued fear, suffering, and death. According to DOCCS data, 5758 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID, and 466 have active cases now. There have been 32 confirmed deaths. In early January, there were outbreaks at about a third of the state’s 52 correctional facilities, and nine incarcerated people died in a three-week span. Data showed that 24.5 percent of the incarcerated population at Woodburne Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID-19. There is an ongoing outbreak at Franklin Correctional Facility, where Michael Watson recently died just days before he was supposed to be released.
Other states, including neighboring states, have followed the science and prioritized vaccines in prisons and jails. Connecticut and Pennsylvania, for example, have designated incarcerated people as top-priority “Phase One” recipients for vaccines. New Jersey began vaccinating incarcerated individuals in December. Massachusetts has provided 1442 first doses as of January 31st. California has provided 18,959 first doses as of February 2nd. Likewise, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) expects that all staff and incarcerated individuals in their facilities will receive their first dose by mid-February. The BOP called this a “top priority.”
Beyond access to the vaccines, however, New York’s vaccination plan must be based on meaningful education and informed consent about the vaccine. The State must be cognizant of the effects of the history of medical experimentation on incarcerated people and people of color in the United States, the hierarchical constraints inherent in carceral settings, and the deep distrust many incarcerated people and their families feel towards correctional authorities, including health authorities. We recommend that DOCCS, via trusted peer educators, provide regular, clear, culturally appropriate information about COVID-19 and the vaccine’s safety and efficacy to incarcerated individuals. In addition to written information, there should be the chance for discussion and answering questions. Thoughtful messaging from someone trained in public health, that takes into account cultural and personal circumstances, is far more likely to yield a fully informed decision than a message from correctional officers. The Prisoners AIDS Counseling and Education (PACE) peer advocacy program is a good model for this kind of peer-led education.
● Immediately provide vaccine access to all incarcerated individuals in New York’s prisons and jails.
● Support the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, Elder Parole bill, and Fair and Timely Parole bill. The most effective and just solution to limiting the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is decarceration. Elderly and seriously ill incarcerated people should be released to the community. The government has failed to use the tools at their disposal – medical parole, clemency, early release – in any meaningful way. This makes immunization even more critical.
● Provide regular, clear, culturally appropriate information about COVID-19 and the vaccine’s safety and efficacy to incarcerated individuals. Through this education, ensure that incarcerated individuals can give voluntary informed consent prior to vaccination.
● Vaccines should be administered by outside health personnel rather than DOCCS medical personnel, who are often distrusted by incarcerated individuals.
● Individuals who receive the vaccine should have access to over-the-counter pain relievers to manage common side effects such as muscle soreness. There should also be monitoring in place for any rare serious side effects.
New York State’s decision to provide vaccines to people in congregate settings like shelters and nursing homes but not jails or prisons, and to correctional staff but not incarcerated individuals, is simply not good public health policy. It is one of many failures we have seen in the State’s response to COVID-19 in prisons and jails. It is too late to save the lives of Michael Watson or the other 30 people who have died in custody, but it is not too late to provide vaccines that can save the lives of many others. We urge you to immediately authorize vaccinations for incarcerated individuals and implement meaningful decarceration across the system.
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.
Albert Einstein / Jacobi + Montefiore Emergency Medicine Residency Program
Asociacion de Mujeres Progresistas Inc.
Callen-Lorde Community Health Center
Center for HIV Law and Policy
Coalition on Positive Health Empowerment
Columbia University White Coats for Black Lives
Columbia-Harlem Homeless Medical Partnership
Committee of Interns and Residents SEIU
COVID-19 Working Group New York
5C Cultural Center
Freedom Agenda, Urban Justice Center
Hepatitis C Mentor and Support Group
Justice 4 Women TaskForce
Medical Providers Network (MPN), New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
Morningside Friends (Quakers)
National Black Leadership Commission on Health
National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable
New York #insulin4all
New York City DSA Healthcare Working Group
New York Civil Liberties Union
New York Doctors Coalition
North Country Access to Health Care Committee
Nurses for Social Justice
Physicians for a National Health Program - New York Metro
Planning Alternatives for Change
Primary Care Progress at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Prison Library Support Network
Racial Literacy Groups
Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP
Rise and Resist NYC
Treatment Action Group
Unity Fellowship of Christ Church NYC
Uptown Progressive Action Health Committee
Urban Survivors Union
Women’s Community Justice Association
Individuals (Organizational affiliation provided for identification purposes only)
Paula Askalsky, MD
Angelica Angiulli, MD, Medical Justice Alliance
Nicholas Apping, MD, NYU Langone Hospital
Steven B. Auerbach, MD, MPH, FAAP Capt/06 | Senior Medical Epidemiologist, U.S. Public Health Service
Sonya Bakshi, MD, NYU Langone Health
Brendan Barrett, MD, Jacobi Medical Center
Eliza Bayroff, Peer Health Advocate, Gay Health Advocacy Project, Columbia University
Tita Beal, Morningside Friends (Quakers)
Noah Berland, MD, Kings County Hospital
Amy Bleasdale, Medical Student, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Professor Naomi Braine, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Mx. Reginald Thomas Brown, M. Ed., VOCAL-NY and Unity Fellowship of Christ Church NYC
Gail Brown, Director, Coalition on Positive Health Empowerment
April Brucker, ACT UP/NY
Mia Bruner, Prison Library Support Network
Julie Byrnes, Medical Student, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Linelle Campbell, MD, Jacobi/ Montefiore
Jack Carney, DSW, North Country Access to Health Care Committee
Ashley Castillo, Medical Student, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Mary Ann Castle, Ph.D., Planning Alternatives for Change
Winnie Chen, Medical Student, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Janice Chou, MD. Bellevue Hospital
Merlin Chowkwanyun, Donald Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of
Public Health, Columbia University
Cameron Clarke, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Paige Cloonan, Medical Student, Icahn School of Medicine
Robert L. Cohen, MD
Maria Contel, PhD, Brooklyn College, The City University of New York
Robert Croonquist, Founder, Youth Arts New York
Isabella Cuan, Medical Student, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Brandon Cuicchi, ACT UP/NY
Daniel Cummings, Medical Student, NYU
Marion Phyllis Cunningham RN, EdD, Retired CUNY
Carol Dallinga, LCSW, CGP, EMDR
Donald Dawkins, MD, Bellevue
Chanelle Diaz, MD, MPH, Montefiore Medical Center
Emily Duan, MS3, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Brittany Dube, MPH, National Black Leadership Commission on Health
Bethany Dubois, MS1, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Dr. Maria Duenas, Mount Sinai Hospital
Kevin W. Fitzgerald, Rise and Resist
Natalia Forbath, Medical Student, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Nora Freeman, NYC-Metro Raging Grannies
Jamie Fried, MS3, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Robert E. Fullilove, EdD, Professor and Associate Dean, Columbia University Mailman School of Public
Madelyn Garcia, Student, SUNY Upstate
Annette Gaudino, Director of Policy Strategy, Treatment Action Group
Jackie Goldenberg, Rise and Resist
Lorie Goshin, PhD, RN, FAAN, Associated Professor of Nursing, Hunter College
Cassandra Grello, NYU SOM Year 1, New York University School of Medicine
Jennifer Grossman, RN, BSN Executive Director, Nurses for Social Justice
Alejandro Gupta, MS3, NYU Langone
Arvind Haran, MD, Resident Physician, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Jessica Ho, MPH, MS2, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons
Tamara Hofer, MPH Candidate, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health
Karlynn Holland, Chapter Leader, New York #insulin4all
Miao Jenny Hua, MD/PhD, New York Doctors Coalition
Lauren Ingrassia, Prison Library Support Network
Caleb Irvine, Medical Student, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Michael P. Jones, MD, Albert Einstein / Jacobi + Montefiore Emergency Medicine Residency Program
William Jordan, MD, MPH, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Emma Karin, Eriksson Public Librarian, New York Public Library
Mx. Baer Karrington, MSPH, NYU Langone
Rev. Carol Kessler MD, Family Services of Westchester
Kaushal Khambhati, MD, Jacobi Medical Center
Dan Kim, J.D. Candidate, NYU School of Law
Jill Kirschen, Rise and Resist
Dr. Leon Kirschner, Rise and Resist
Anna Koerner, Medical Student, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons
Betty Kolod, MD AAHIVS
Patrick Lasowski, Medical Student, Icahn School of Medicine
Nydia Leaf, Retired Educator
Nikki Leger, ACT UP/NY
Ms. Leger, NYC Metro-Raging Grannies
Alice Linder, M1, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons
Caleb LoSchiavo, MPH, Rutgers School of Public Health
Michael Lubin MD, NYU Langone Health
Ronni Marks, Hepatitis C Mentor and Support Group
Gregory Mazarin, MD, Jack Weiler Hospital
Christopher McLaughlin, MD Candidate, Columbia University
Saydee McQuay, Medical Student, NYU School of Medicine
Kristen Medley, MD/MPA Student, NYU School of Medicine
Sebastian Mendez, MD Candidate, Renaissance School of Medicine
Maureen Miller, MD, MPH, New York Doctors Coalition
Michael Mizrahi, MD, Jacobi Medical Center
Kelly Moltzen, Interfaith Public Health Network
Sophie Montgomery, Medical Student, NYU School of Medicine
Jenna Moser, MD Candidate, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Carly Mulinda, MD Candidate, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons
Carolina Bank Muñoz, Professor, Brooklyn College
Roni Natov, Professor of English, Brooklyn College CUNY
Constance Norgren, Brooklyn For Peace
Maryellen Novak, Rise and Resist, Inwood Indivisible
Benjamin Ogedegbe, Medical Student, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Afia Osei-Ntansah, MS1 NYU School of Medicine
Joseph Osmundson, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Biology, New York University
Yeji Park, MD Candidate, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Augustus Parker, Medical Student, New York University Grossman School of Medicine
Krishna Patel, Icahn School of Medicine Mount Sinai
MaryLouise Patterson, MD, PNHP
Diana Perez, MD Candidate, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons
Robert Pezzolesi, Convener, Interfaith Public Health Network
Dr. Yvonne Pitts, Purdue University
Tanya Pollard, Professor, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Martin Quinn, Rise and Resist
Muriel Radocchio, LCSW
Caroline Rath, PA, MPH
Dr. Michele R. Renchner
Susan M. Reverby, PhD, Professor Emerita, Wellesley College and Harvard University
Valerie Reyes-Jimenez/ Nuyorican
Serene Rich, MD, Montefiore Medical Center
Joyce Richardson LCSW-R, Retired from Elmhurst Hospital H+H
Julianne Rieders, PhD, MS2, New York University Grossman School of Medicine
Maddie Rita, Medical Student, NYU School of Medicine
Isidra Rodriguez-Veve, Medical student, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Anna Rose, Medical Student, Columbia Primary Care Progress
Jackie Rudin, Rise And Resist
Emily Rutland, MD Candidate, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Crissaris Sarnelli, MD
Jamie Schlacter, M.D. Candidate, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Christine Schmidt, Racial Literacy Groups
Keriann Shalvoy, MD, MPH, Committee of Interns and Residents SEIU
Marc Shi MD, Montefiore Medical Center
Elana Siegel MD, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai
Benjamin Silva, Medical Student, New York University
Trudy Silver, 5C Cultural Center
Claudia Sofia Simich, MD, Jacobi Medical Center
Adrienne Simmons, Director of Programs, National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable
Mark Solter, Clinical Research Coordinator, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC)
Alice Sturm Sutter, retired nurse practitioner, Uptown Progressive Action
Stephen Sukumaran, MPH
Marvin Thomas, Resident/Student, New York University
Bruce G. Trigg, MD
Lauren Tucker, M1, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Sandra Turner MD, PNHP Physicians for National Health Program
James Uhrig, MD, Correctional Health Services, NYC H+HC
William Lee Vail MD, Correctional Health Service, NYC H+HC
Jennifer Van Dyck, Rise and Resist
Natan Vega Potler, MD, Bellevue/NYU
Nicholas Voyles, Urban Survivors Union
Jay W. Walker, Rise and Resist, Gays Against Guns, Reclaim Pride Coalition/Queer Liberation
Dalia Walzer, Medical Student, NYU School of Medicine
John Wang, MD, New York University Langone Medical Center
Julie Wegener, MD, Uptown Progressive Action Health Committee
Lauren Wessler, MD, NYC H+HC
Eric Whitney, MD
Jocelyn Wills, Professor,Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Malika Wilson, Medical Student, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Melecia Wright, PhD
Emily Xu, Medical Student, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Michelle Zabat, MD Candidate, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Helen Zhou, Medical Student, NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Barbara Zeller, MD
 COVID-19 Working Group New York, https://www.covid-19workinggroupnyc.org/ (last visited Feb. 10, 2021) (“The COVID-19 Working Group New York is a coalition of doctors, healthcare professionals, scientists, social workers, community workers, activists, and epidemiologists committed to a rapid and community-oriented response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.”).
 Release Aging People in Prison, Response to Announcement that NY State Prisons Will Begin Vaccinating Incarcerated Older People, Feb. 4, 2021, http://rappcampaign.com/wp-content/uploads/Vax-statement-1.pdf.
 The Bronx Defenders, Demand Letter Re: Vaccination of People Held in Prisons and Jails, Jan. 29, 2021, https://www.bronxdefenders.org/demand-letter-re-vaccination-of-people-held-in-prisons-and-jails/.
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 Amanda Fries, Faith-based leaders urge Cuomo to include incarcerated people in current vaccine rollout phase, Times Union, Jan. 29, 2021, https://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/archives/291484/faith-based-leaders-urge-cuomo-to-include-incarcerated-people-in-current-vaccine-rollout-phase/.
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 See, e.g., Emily Wang et al., Recommendations for Prioritization and Distribution of COVID-19 Vaccine in Prisons and Jails, Dec. 16, 2020, https://justicelab.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/COVID_Vaccine_White_Paper.pdf; Aviva Stahl, Prisons have already failed to contain Covid-19. What happens when the new variants arrive?, Vox, Jan. 30, 2021, https://www.vox.com/22256219/covid-19-new-variants-prisons-jails-vaccines-masks.
 Lisa B. Puglisi et al., Estimation of COVID-19 basic reproduction ratio in a large urban jail in the United States, 53 Annals of Epidemiology 103-05 (2021), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7480336/.
 Gaby E. Pfyffer et al., Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis in Prison Inmates, Azerbaijan, 7 Emerging Infectious Diseases 855 (2001), https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/7/5/01-7514_article.
 Lisa B. Puglisi et al., Estimation of COVID-19 basic reproduction ratio in a large urban jail in the United States, 53 Annals of Epidemiology 103-05 (2021), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7480336/.
 Sarah Martison, Virus Death Rates Make Prison Vaccine Plans A Justice Issue, Law360, Dec. 20, 2020, https://www.law360.com/access-to-justice/articles/1336988/virus-death-rates-make-prison-vaccine-plans-a-justice-issue.
 Bethany Bump, Greene County officials say delayed state response fueled prison virus outbreak, Times Union, Oct. 21, 2020, https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Greene-County-officials-say-delayed-state-15665611.php.
 Gregory Hooks & Wendy Sawyer, Prison Policy Initiative, Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread, Dec. 2020, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/covidspread.html.
 Emma Accorsi, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Perspectives: Why incarcerated people should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination, Dec. 18, 2020, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/perspectives-why-incarcerated-people-should-be-prioritized-for-covid-19-vaccination/.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19: People with Certain Medical Conditions, Feb. 3, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html.
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 Fiona G. Kouyoumdjian et al, Do people who experience incarceration age more quickly? Exploratory analyses using retrospective cohort data on mortality from Ontario, Canada, PLoS ONE, Apr. 14, 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5391969/.
 Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, DOCCS COVID-19 Report, https://doccs.ny.gov/doccs-covid-19-report (last visited Feb.22, 2021). This tracker does not capture the full number of incarcerated individuals who have been infected with COVID, as it does not include the many people who were not able to get tested.
 Gwynne Hogan, Data Shows Half of New York's State Prisons Dealing With Large COVID Outbreaks, WNYC News, Jan. 19, 2021, https://www.wnyc.org/story/large-covid-19-outbreaks-now-half-new-yorks-state-prisons-data-show/; Gwynne Hogan, Nine COVID Deaths, 1,000+ Infections In 3 Weeks: Will NY Do More To Stop The Spread In Prisons?, Gothamist, Jan. 8, 2021, https://gothamist.com/news/nine-covid-deaths-1000-infections-3-weeks-will-ny-do-more-stop-spread-prisons.
 Rich Klein, 24.5 Percent Covid Infection Rate Among Woodbourne Inmates, The Sullivan Times, Jan. 11, 2021, https://www.sullivantimes.com/post/24-5-percent-covid-infection-rate-among-woodbourne-inmates.
 Kelly O’Brien, Inmate dies at Malone prison from COVID-19, WCAX, Feb. 5, 2021, https://www.wcax.com/2021/02/06/inmate-dies-at-malone-prison-from-covid-19/.
 Dustin Racioppi, NJ begins vaccinating for COVID-19 in prisons as it continues first-phase rollout, Northjersey.com, Jan. 4, 2021, https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/coronavirus/2020/12/31/nj-starts-vaccinations-prisons-first-phase-rollout-covid/4099168001/.
 The COVID Prison Project, COVID-19 Vaccine Doses Tracker, https://covidprisonproject.com/covid-vaccine-doses/.
 U.S. Bureau of Prisons, COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts Commended, Jan. 16, 2021, https://www.bop.gov/resources/news/20210116_covid_vaccine_efforts_commended.jsp.