A legal-aid group is suing the state Department of Corrections, demanding COVID-19 vaccines be made immediately available for all people incarcerated in Washington prisons.
The class-action lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court by Columbia Legal Services also seeks an order banning direct contact with incarcerated people by DOC employees and contractors who refuse vaccines.
The lawsuit alleges the state’s refusal to promptly vaccinate the approximately 15,000 people living in prisons — where the infection rate is more than eight times higher than in the general population — violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Since the start of the pandemic last year, 6,190 people in DOC custody have tested positive for COVID-19, and 14 have died, according to DOC data. Another 1,149 DOC staff have tested positive and two died.
“As a group, people in DOC custody have suffered horribly over the last year.
Thousands of them have fallen ill from COVID-19, some have died, and all have suffered horrendous conditions,” the lawsuit states.
In an emailed statement, DOC spokesperson Jacque Coe said the agency will continue to follow the state Department of Health’s (DOH) published vaccine phase schedule.
As of March 31, that schedule would allow for vaccinations for “all incarcerated individuals and staff in corrections facilities, based upon supply of the vaccine received. It is important to note that Corrections provides the vaccine, but acceptance of the vaccine is an individual choice,” 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 lawsuit’s three named individual plaintiffs are serving time in different state prisons: Candis Rush, at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor; Gregory Steen at Clallam Bay Corrections Center; and Justin Autrey at Monroe Corrections Center.
They’ve alleged in the lawsuit that some DOC staff are not following social-distancing rules, refuse to be vaccinated, and have spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines.
Tony Gonzalez, one of the Columbia Legal attorneys involved in the case, said in a news release DOC should work with “authentic, respected voices in the community to help spread accurate information and build trust around the vaccine and DOC’s ability to properly administer it.”
DOC has administered at least one vaccine dose to nearly 9,500 people at state prison facilities, according to the department’s public vaccine-information website. The DOC statistics do not say how many of those were given to staff or to inmates, but Columbia Legal’s lawsuit says staff have been prioritized.
In addition to DOC, the lawsuit names the state Department of Health and its secretary, Umair Shah. DOH did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.