New York City Council’s Committee on Health (Jointly with the Committee on Hospitals) held a hearing on Oversight of COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution & Accessibility in NYC. Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem Staff Attorney Meghna Philip submitted testimony on the urgent need for Governor Cuomo to deliver vaccines to our vulnerable clients held in jails and prisons.

Read Meghna’s testimony below.

New York Faces a Crisis. We Must Vaccinate Incarcerated People Immediately – And Decarcerate
Meghna Philip

This week, Phase 1B of the vaccine distribution has begun in New York, targeting several at-risk groups including police, court officers, corrections officers, and individuals living in homeless shelters (who the state has specifically identified as vulnerable because they must sleep, bathe, and eat in accommodations with other individuals who are not part of their household). But one extremely vulnerable population that intersects with all these groups is notably missing from the Phase 1B list: our incarcerated clients.

Neither the state nor the city have provided any clear statement as to when or how incarcerated people will be vaccinated.  We were encouraged to read reports that Correctional Health Services has received approval to offer the vaccine to its “highest risk patients”. But the city must do more—it must urgently prioritize vaccinating all people incarcerated in its jails. We request that the City Council do all it can to push both the Mayor’s Office and Governor Cuomo to coordinate clear and transparent plans to promptly vaccinate people housed in New York’s jails and prisons.

The total population in New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) custody is now close to 5000. 59% of that population is Black, and 27.7% of that population is Hispanic. Our incarcerated clients come from precisely the Black, brown, and low-income communities hardest hit by the pandemic, and whom the Governor has pledged to prioritize in vaccination efforts. And as has now been well documented, people in jail or prison are four times as likely to be infected with coronavirus as the general population and twice as likely to die from it. Clusters of infections in jails and prisons inevitably end up triggering broader community spread. Yet Governor Cuomo’s priority phases have been silent as to when incarcerated individuals will be vaccinated.

The custodial population has been increasing steadily since the late summer, and numbers are now nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. Police and district attorneys are behaving as though the pandemic has already run its course, playing with both our clients’ safety and public health generally. Since the pandemic began, the City has also closed multiple DOC facilities, including the Manhattan Detention Center, the Otis Bantum Correction Center, and the Eric M. Taylor Center. Therefore, as the Board of Corrections has documented, housing density inside city jails has steadily increased alongside the jail population in recent months. The majority of the jail population is now housed in an area that exceeds 75% capacity. Social distancing under these circumstances is impossible.

As the pandemic’s latest wave rages, with New York City’s COVID positivity rate now at more than 9 percent, the state has two solutions before it, which must be pursued in tandem: vaccinate every incarcerated person and reduce the jail and prison population. The consequences of inaction would be catastrophic.

A lack of clarity, specificity, and urgency around when and how incarcerated people will be vaccinated will only prolong the serious risks of another large outbreak in city jails, similar to what happened last spring. We join our colleagues at other public defender offices in requesting clear information on how many vaccine doses will be made available for incarcerated people, when those will be made available, and how incarcerated people will be educated to make informed decisions regarding vaccination. And we request that the City Council strongly advocate to the Mayor’s Office and Governor Cuomo that all incarcerated people must be prioritized for vaccinations now.