Corrections officers’ union leader has COVID-19

ALBANY — The leader of the union representing New York corrections officers and numerous other prison staffers has tested positive for COVID-19 virus, the union said Monday.

Michael B. Powers, who has been in close contact with corrections officers throughout the state during the pandemic, has been self-quarantining at home for the past several days, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA) said.

“The news reaffirms the Union’s position that the State, including the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH), must take immediate action to further prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus in our state correctional and mental health facilities,” the union said in a statement.

Approximately 40 DOCCS employees have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the state agency.

Powers, in a statement, urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to “make employee safety a priority” and allow prison staffers to wear personal protection equipment.

“If the state cannot pay for it, then allow NYSCOPBA to help,” Powers said. “Each day that our members are prohibited from wearing protective equipment, they are exposed to being infected and spreading the virus inside and outside of the facilities.”

The evolving health threat posed by the contagion in the prisons prompted Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-North Country, to come out in full support of enhanced precautionary measure and protective equipment at both state and federal prisons.

“My office asked for prisons to stop prisoner transfers and visits weeks ago, and New York was too slow in implementing those changes,” Stefanik says.

She said she also wants “enhanced information sharing between both federal and state prisons and county public health offices for the safety and health of corrections officers and our entire North Country community.”

Stefanik called the lack of PPE for corrections staffers “unacceptable.”

“As it stands right now, correctional officers are not allowed to bring their own PPE from home. I will continue to work with state and local officials to ensure this issue becomes a top priority for the state and federal bureau of prisons,” the congresswoman said.

CNHI reported March 22 that convicted rapist and former Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein was one of two inmates who tested positive at Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County. Numerous corrections officers at the Wende prison have had to be quarantined after having contact with the two inmates.

Weinstein had been transferred to the state prison system from Rikers Island, a New York City jail that has been dealing with a large cluster of prisoners who have tested positive for the virus, only days before he arrived at Wende.

At least one inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora has tested positive for the virus, according to state officials.

The outbreak in prisons has prompted criminal justice reform advocates to argue the state should be releasing elderly inmates and prisoners with compromised immune systems from the prison system.

In an interview with CNHI March 22, Powers stated: “There is no better breeding ground for this virus than a closed environment such as a correctional facility,” said Powers.

State Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, a retired state corrections officer, has urged DOCCS officials to impose strict limitations on the transportation of inmates due to the heightened health concerns. The state agency said last week it has put tight limits on the movement of inmates within the system.

Powers, in his statement, voiced frustration that “too much time” has passed while state officials review the union’s request to have corrections staffers wear masks and other personal protection equipment on the job.

“Every day we are discovering more positive tests for COVID-19,” Powers said. “The State must act now before it is too late, and we’re faced with a bigger crisis inside the state’s prison and mental health systems.”

DOCCS officials were not immediately available to respond to the statements from Powers and the union.


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