A New York judge on Monday ordered the state to offer vaccines to prisoners.
The order instructs New York to amend COVID-19 vaccine priority category 1b to include incarcerated individuals as a whole group. Previously only incarcerated individuals who were over 65 years old or had certain medical conditions could receive the vaccine.
As determined by the government of New York, individuals living in congregate settings, such as homeless shelters and juvenile detention centers, are eligible to receive the vaccine as part of Group 1b. The petitioners challenged their exclusion from Group 1b, arguing that it was arbitrary and capricious and violated the Equal Protection Clause. They cited the conditions in prisons, which make social distancing impossible. Further, people who work at prisons have become eligible for the vaccine as part of group 1b. The petitioners argued that if the guards and employees were eligible, they should be too.
The government of New York claimed that incarcerated individuals had been excluded due to supply limitations. This is despite making people living in any other congregate facility eligible as part of group 1b.
The judge agreed with the inmates, finding the rationale arbitrary and capricious:
Petitioners face an extraordinary risk of COVID-19, serious long-term health complications and possible death if Respondents do not immediately provide access to this life-vaccine. The imminent risk of contracting COVID-19 for individuals living within these facilities is high. Specifically, the congregate nature of Petitioners’ living conditions, the rising rate of the incarcerated population and increasing number of COVID-19 positive cases within these facilities creates significant risk.
On Monday Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all residents 30 years and older were eligible to receive the vaccine. The judge found that this did not change the results, as people under the age of 30 are incarcerated.