NY lawmakers get inside look at state prison affected by COVID

With more than 10,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state prison and parole systems, New York lawmakers are visiting correctional facilities, jails and detention centers to assess the response to the pandemic.

The first visit was to Fishkill Correctional Facility in late January. State Sen. Julia Salazar, who chairs the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, was among the lawmakers who toured the medium-security prison in the Hudson Valley.

Fishkill was the site of one of the early COVID-19 outbreaks in a New York state prison. According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, there have been 146 confirmed cases in the facility. Six incarcerated people have died, the most virus-related deaths in any state prison.

Salazar, D-Brooklyn, told The Citizen in an interview that a priority for the group is to see how the COVID-19 regulations are being implemented and to hold facilities accountable. She was also interested in visiting Fishkill because of its history. Before it became a state prison, it was a psychiatric hospital.

There are mental health services offered at the prison — the state Office of Mental Health has a presence there — and there is a long-term care unit for older incarcerated people.

The group of lawmakers was also shown the areas used to isolate incarcerated people who contract COVID-19 and quarantine their contacts. According to Salazar, there are three parts of the prison’s special housing units — which are usually used for solitary confinement — that are being used for its COVID-19 response. One unit has COVID-positive inmates, while another has individuals in quarantine. A third area is reserved for incarcerated individuals who are awaiting the results of their COVID-19 tests and have symptoms of the virus.

It was meaningful to Salazar to visit the special housing units because she’s the sponsor of a bill, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, that would restrict the use of the practice in prisons. During the tour, she was able to see a cell in the special housing unit where incarcerated people spend 23 hours of their day.

The trip also reinforced her stance that the state Legislature must act on bills that would allow older inmates (age 55 and up) to be eligible for parole and to ensure there is a timely parole process.

“I could see in the experiences that I had during the visit and the conversations I had with the men who are incarcerated there the urgency of that legislation that already exists and that we are already fighting for,” she said.

What impressed Salazar is Fishkill’s progress in preparing to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to its incarcerated population. At the time of her visit, the prison had installed refrigeration equipment that would be used to store the vaccine doses. She was informed by a state Department of Health representative that the prison requests 100 doses every week.

It was announced last week that state prisons would begin vaccinating older inmates. Fishkill, according to Salazar, has older incarcerated people who are in a long-term care facility at the prison. DOCCS said in a statement that there are 1,075 inmates across the state who are eligible to receive the vaccine.

There has been some criticism of the state’s announcement because incarcerated individuals may receive the vaccine before people who aren’t in prison.

“If they are eligible on the outside, they should be eligible on the inside in order to stop the spread and also to protect people who will be most vulnerable if they are exposed,” Salazar said.

Salazar recently became chair of the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, which oversees the state prison system along with other criminal justice-related issues. There are plans to visit other state prisons this month. A group of lawmakers will also visit local jails and a federal immigration detention facility.


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