A class-action lawsuit from last year demanding COVID-19 vaccines be immediately provided to all people incarcerated in Washington state prisons was dismissed Friday, as the bulk of the lawsuit’s demands have been met.
Ruling from the bench Friday, Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon said that the state Department of Corrections had essentially complied with the lawsuit’s two chief demands.
The lawsuit, filed in March 2021 by Columbia Legal Services, a legal aid group, demanded that people in state prisons be offered the vaccine “immediately” and that unvaccinated staff be banned from contact with incarcerated people.
The demand that unvaccinated staff be barred from contact was met when Gov. Jay Inslee implemented a vaccine mandate for all state workers.
Columbia Legal Services celebrated the ruling, saying it achieved most of its demands, while saying DOC still didn’t do enough to educate the prison population about the vaccines.
“I think that if DOC had been more proactive about our safety, there would have been more incentive about getting vaccinated,” said Candis Rush, one of the plaintiffs, who is currently incarcerated in Gig Harbor, in a declaration to the court. “They didn’t do enough to address misinformation among their staff, and that misinformation trickled down to the people living here.”
Rachel Ericson, a DOC spokesperson, said the agency was pleased with the court’s decision.
“The department worked hard to ensure that vaccine doses and boosters were available to incarcerated individuals as soon as we were authorized to provide them,” Ericson said. “We are grateful for every incarcerated individual who chooses to get vaccinated.”
About 55% of people currently in Washington state prisons are fully vaccinated, according to DOC. About 74% of the Washington population, age 5 and up, is fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been more than 14,000 COVID cases in state prisons and 17 COVID deaths among incarcerated people, according to DOC, a case mortality rate lower than for the general public.
All three state prisons where the plaintiffs reside — Washington Corrections Center for Women, in Gig Harbor; Monroe Corrections Center; and Clallam Bay Corrections Center — are currently in lockdown due to COVID outbreaks, Columbia Legal Services said.
That means incarcerated people are confined to their units 22 hours a day and can’t go to meals, see family or participate in group programs, the legal aid group said.
“DOC had to be mandated to meet our clients’ most essential needs, and will need to be forced to address their other failings that keep people at risk,” said Tony Gonzalez, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services.