A federal judge has ordered the state of Oregon to immediately begin offering COVID-19 vaccines to incarcerated people.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday requiring Oregon to include all state prison inmates in Phase 1A, Group 2, of Oregon's vaccination plan, which puts them in the same tier as those living and working in congregate care facilities, such as nursing homes. Oregon's misguided vaccination rollout prioritized correctional staff and prison employees, but not inmates. Seven inmates at Oregon correctional facilities filed motions in federal court on January 21, as part of a larger class action lawsuit filed last April, seeking to compel the state to offer vaccines to all inmates.
Under current Supreme Court precedent, the Eighth Amendment guarantees access to basic health care and hygiene, but they must show "deliberate indifference" by staff to prevail in a civil rights lawsuit challenging prison conditions. Beckerman ruled that the incarcerated plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their claims that being passed over for vaccines amounted to such indifference.
"The narrow question before the Court is whether prioritizing those living and working in congregate care facilities and those working in correctional settings to receive the vaccine, but denying the same priority for those living in correctional settings, demonstrates deliberate indifference to the health and safety of those relying on the state's care," Beckerman wrote in her ruling.
"Our constitutional rights are not suspended during a crisis," Beckerman continued. "On the contrary, during difficult times we must remain the most vigilant to protect the constitutional rights of the powerless. Even when faced with limited resources, the state must fulfill its duty of protecting those in its custody."
So far, 42 incarcerated people in Oregon have died from COVID-19, and more than 3,000 have been infected.
"This will save an incredible amount of lives," Juan Chavez, an Oregon Justice Resource Center attorney who is representing the seven inmates, told The Oregonian.
Last week, The Oregonian reported on "the dire situation in Oregon's prisons, where COVID cases have spiked dramatically, prisoners are afraid and frustrated."
Prison and jails across the country, under pressure from an unusual alliance of prison guard unions and civil liberties groups, took unprecedented steps to reduce their populations, leading to a significant drop in the total incarcerated population. But those measures still did not go far enough to stop prisons and jails from becoming some of the biggest COVID hotspots in the U.S.
According to The Marshall Project, at least 366,121 people in prison nationwide had tested positive for the illness as of January 26, and 2,314 had died.
"The Department of Corrections received Judge Beckerman's order to vaccinate all adults in state custody," Oregon Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters says in a statement. "This pandemic has been exceedingly difficult for those who live and work in our institutions, and we will continue to work hard to combat this virus. Operationally, we are prepared to offer and administer additional vaccines. We know vaccines will slow the spread of COVID-19 inside Oregon's institutions for those in our care and custody, and in turn, protect our employees and Oregon communities."