Lawsuit seeks COVID-19 vaccines for Washington state inmates
SEATTLE (AP) — A legal-aid group in Washington state has sued the state Department of Corrections, demanding that all state prison inmates immediately receive COVID-19 vaccines.
Columbia Legal Services filed the class-action lawsuit on Tuesday in Thurston County Superior Court, The Seattle Times reported. The lawsuit also seeks an order banning direct contact with inmates by employees and contractors who refuse to be inoculated.
The lawsuit claims the state’s refusal to promptly vaccinate about 15,000 inmates violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The coronavirus infection rate in prisons is more than eight times higher than in the general population, the lawsuit said.
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, more than 6,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and 14 people have died, department officials said. More than 1,000 workers have tested positive and two have died.
Department of Corrections spokesperson Jacque Coe said the agency will continue to follow the state Department of Health’s published vaccine phase schedule.
Coe said the schedule would allow for vaccinations for “all incarcerated individuals and staff in corrections facilities, based upon supply of the vaccine received” as of March 31.
“We will be working with the Office of the Attorney General to assess and respond to the lawsuit by Columbia Legal Services,” Coe said.
The lawsuit names plaintiffs Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor inmate Candis Rush, Clallam Bay Corrections Center inmate Gregory Steen and Monroe Corrections Center inmate Justin Autrey. They claimed that prison employees do not follow social distancing guidelines and have refused vaccinations.
Columbia Legal attorney Tony Gonzalez said the Department of Corrections should work with “authentic, respected voices in the community to help spread accurate information and build trust around the vaccine.”
The agency has administered at least one vaccine dose to about 9,500 people at state prison facilities, according to its website. It is unclear how many were given to staff compared to inmates.