Washington Inmate Lawsuit Claims Vaccine Rollout Is Too Slow

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A lawsuit is questioning whether women and staff at the Correction Center for Women at Purdy, among other state prisons, are being vaccinated at rates high enough to ensure they are safe.

The Purdy prison holds a maximum of 738 inmates. The Pierce County Health Department has recorded 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the facility, and only recently removed a purple dot from its regional map indicating an "outbreak" there.

The nonprofit Columbia Legal Services is suing the Department of Corrections (DOC) to mandate that all state prison inmates immediately receive COVID-19 vaccines.

"We have serious concerns about the Department of Corrections' roll-out of the vaccine, their delays in making the vaccine available to people in custody, and whether or not they're doing that safely," Laurel Simonsen, an attorney for the nonprofit, told The Gateway. She pointed to a recent instance where the DOC had given expired vaccine doses to more than 200 people in custody at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

So far, the suit has been unsuccessful. A Thurston County Superior Court judge in April denied a motion for a preliminary injunction and declined to certify the suit as a class action. The nonprofit is appealing to the State Supreme Court.

The Columbia lawyers say that "as of May 4, 2021, only 6,096 people in DOC custody have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which means that over 8,200 people have not yet received even a single dose." It also said that "as of May 4, 2021, only 3,672 staff and/or contractors — 41% of DOC employees — have accepted the vaccine."

The Department of Corrections website says 571 inmates or staff at the Purdy facility have received their first Moderna vaccine shot and 299 their second. In addition, 51 people have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Staff can refuse shot

Inmates and staff both are allowed to refuse the vaccine, and that is a concern to inmates like Candis Rush, one of those named in the lawsuit. Rush said she has received her shot, but fears that many guards and other staff have not.

"The staff are not taking the vaccine because they want other people to take it," Rush said in a telephone call with The Gateway. "Since everyone around them is getting it, they're not going to because they think they don't have to."

The lawsuit is calling for any DOC staff who refuse the vaccine to be prohibited from coming into contact with those in custody.

"It is paramount to protect people in custody who have not yet been vaccinated from staff members who refuse the vaccine or who have not been vaccinated for one reason or another," Simonsen said. "We know definitively that staff members are the vectors of these outbreaks when they come in and out of the facility each day. They're exposed to members of their community outside the prisons and then bring all of that potential exposure back in."

An outbreak, or not

Whether there has been an outbreak of COVID-19 at Purdy is a matter of semantics. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department counts anything more than two cases within 30 days as an outbreak.

The TPCHD website recently showed the facility as having 25 cases in the "current outbreak" and 30 total cumulative confirmed cases since November, 2020. The facility was marked with a purple dot on the map, the only one in the county.

As of Friday, the dot had been removed and TPCHD says it was no longer considered an outbreak, the first time since November.

The DOC dashboard lists 24 total confirmed cases with four new positive cases within the last thirty days.

In response to questions from The Gateway, the DOC said the facility "is not experiencing an outbreak" and said they have only had "one positive case amidst inmates in the last thirty days."

But Simonsen, the lawyer, said "We're seeing new outbreaks all the time," in the state prison system. "The department has not acknowledged that that is even a risk, that unvaccinated staff members pose a risk to people inside."

Following state phases

A DOC spokesperson declined to provide an official who could be quoted, but referred the Gateway to the agency's website.

The website says the DOC is currently offering the vaccine to those in Phase 1A and 1B1-4, which applies to "any DOC employee or incarcerated individual working in a setting where care is being provided to confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients and close contact with them is possible," and to "all DOC employees and incarcerated individuals aged 65 or older regardless of job duties or location."

Rush, the inmate, said she feels "there's no accountability within the DOC."

"They can hold us accountable if we don't do what they say, but then they're not holding each other with protecting us," Rush said. "They're not doing the measures to keep themselves safe in order to keep us safe. I feel like that's a humongous problem."

Rush said she has had to reuse the same mask for several weeks, been unable to social distance, and lacks safe ventilation.

That all came into focus when a recent positive case was discovered, she said.

"She had gotten exposed," Rush said. "They moved her over here and they quarantined her in a pod where there was no one infected. The problem with that is that our ventilation system is open and we can see each other in the vents. To put someone that was exposed to COVID in an area where the ventilation system [is like that] shows that they're not doing as much as they're saying they're doing."

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