COVID-19 vaccination rate inching up in NY prisons

As a criminal justice reform group calls for transparency, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision provided an update on COVID-19 vaccinations among the incarcerated population.

Thomas Mailey, a DOCCS spokesperson, said Thursday that the COVID-19 vaccine has been offered to every inmate and 14,786 incarcerated individuals — 46.2% of the statewide prison population — are vaccinated.

“DOCCS has completed clinics at all facilities,” Mailey said. “Educational videos regarding the importance of receiving the COVID vaccine are being displayed statewide. DOCCS continues to re-poll all facilities for interest in receiving the vaccine and has additional clinics scheduled.”

The department is also offering incentives for incarcerated individuals to get vaccinated. The state’s 50 prisons have been divided into three categories based on the size of the incarcerated population. The two correctional facilities in each category with the highest vaccination rate will host barbecues for inmates.

Five vaccinated incarcerated individuals from each prison will be selected to receive a care package containing popular food items sold at the correctional facilities’ commissary.

“The maximum number of vaccinated incarcerated individuals ensures a safer work environment for staff, the incarcerated population and visitors to facilities,” Mailey said. “This type of incentive program has proven to be effective not only in the general public, but in correctional systems across the country.”

DOCCS is facing criticism for its reporting on vaccinations in state prisons. New Yorkers United for Justice, a coalition of criminal justice reform groups, sent a letter to DOCCS and the state Department of Health urging the agencies to provide a “full and accurate breakdown of vaccination data by race, ethnicity, age and gender.”

While DOCCS continues to publish data on COVID-19 cases and testing in prisons, it does not post similar information about its vaccination effort. The department has provided vaccination data when requested by The Citizen.

“It is imperative that DOCCS and DOH provide the public with a clear and detailed picture of COVID-19 tracking and management in prisons, including vaccination data and how they are planning to fight future outbreaks,” said Alexander Horwitz, executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice. “Prisons are ideal breeding grounds for COVID-19 outbreaks, and with potentially large numbers of unvaccinated people in prisons, we cannot risk creating another surge.”

DOCCS has data on vaccinations among incarcerated individuals, but does not have the same information for its staff. Mailey said since the vaccine is not mandatory, employees aren’t required to report to the department whether they have been vaccinated.

At clinics held by the department, 8,148 employees have received at least one vaccine dose. The number does not include any workers who were vaccinated at community clinics.

There could be more information available soon on how many DOCCS employees are vaccinated. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that state workers must either get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.

Mailey did not respond to a question about what DOCCS is doing to prepare for the vaccine-or-test mandate, but Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, panned the requirement.

“It’s disheartening that an administration that touts itself being NY Smart would take such a drastic measure without any input from the individuals this directly impacts,” Powers said. “Just a month ago, the state celebrated the lifting of restrictions with fireworks shows and now today’s about-face. It’s time that we stop making these decisions in a vacuum and start including stakeholders.”

Like other congregate living facilities, New York’s correctional facilities have been affected by COVID-19. According to DOCCS, 6,609 incarcerated individuals, 5,189 employees and 382 parolees have tested positive for the virus since March 2020.

Twenty-six of the state’s 50 prisons have reported more than 100 confirmed cases. The death toll includes 35 incarcerated individuals and eight employees.


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