ACLU-WV, along with Mountain State Justice, Inc., today sent a letter to Governor Justice’s administration demanding that the Governor publicly release and implement immediately a plan to ensure that those who are incarcerated have the opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. If the Governor’s office does not provide a response in writing providing a timeline by which it will provide access to vaccines for those incarcerated by March 31, MSJ and ACLU-WV are prepared to move forward with litigation on behalf of incarcerated individuals who are in desperate need of access to these vaccines. The letter follows a months-long effort by a coalition of organizations urging the Governor and the state to take action and make vaccines available to incarcerated people.
COVID-19 has devastated the incarcerated population. Just weeks ago, after outbreaks erupted in Western Regional Jail and Southern Regional Jail, at least 275 incarcerated individuals were diagnosed with COVID. More than 3,300 people in state custody have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the time since the virus arrived in West Virginia, and at least ten people have died from complications arising from the virus. Just like individuals in any other congregate setting, those incarcerated should have been provided access to the vaccine on a higher-priority basis. Now, although Governor Justice has opened vaccine eligibility up to anyone in West Virginia who is 16 years or older, his office has still not announced a timeline during which incarcerated people will be eligible to receive the vaccine. Those who are incarcerated in our state and regional facilities are no less West Virginians than those who are not incarcerated. The Governor must act now to provide access to the vaccine to incarcerated people.
“Providing access to COVID-19 vaccines to these vulnerable populations is not only the right thing to do, it is also required by the U.S. Constitution,” said Rachel Kincaid, a staff attorney at MSJ. “The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that officials cannot simply ignore the serious medical needs of incarcerated populations. By not providing access to vaccines for incarcerated people, that’s exactly what the Governor’s office has been doing. We hope that instead of continuing to violate the Constitution, the Governor’s office will now act quickly to provide access to vaccines for those held in West Virginia’s jails and prisons.”
“It is our hope that the Governor’s office will finally acknowledge the necessity of providing vaccine access to one of our most vulnerable populations and that litigation will not be necessary,” said Loree Stark, Legal Director of ACLU-WV. “However, we are prepared to move forward if the Governor does not immediately remedy the issue.”