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Prison virus precautions widely described as too little, too late

The Federal Correctional Institute at Ray Brook is seen in April 2016. The buildings were originally built to house athletes for the 1980 Winter Olympics in nearby Lake Placid. Converting it to a prison afterward was part of the original plan. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

Coronavirus is spreading through North Country prisons, and though their governing state and federal organizations made several policy changes last week to slow the spread, corrections officers, union representatives, inmate advocates and politicians say these changes are coming too late, and they are still fighting an uphill battle for more changes to be made.

One inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora has contracted COVID-19 and two staff members at the federal prison in Ray Brook have been diagnosed with the virus.

There are now two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in FCI Ray Brook’s staff. James Weldon — president of AFGE CPL33, Local 3882 — the union representing FCI Ray Brook employees, said the second staff member, announced Monday, has known of his diagnosis for several days now, and has been in quarantine, along with people he knows personally.

Weldon said there has not been a state Department of Health investigation into who he had been in contact with yet.

“Most of the employees are extremely concerned,” Weldon said. “It appears that what the (Federal Bureau of Prisons) is doing isn’t enough to stop the spread.”

Weldon, who is waiting on test results himself, said the policy changes at the facility should have been made much earlier and that because of that delay the virus will “absolutely” spread further through the prison. He said it is just about containment now, and that changing policies is hard because the federal Bureau of Prisons is “micromanaging” the individual facilities.

“They’re not letting each facility do what would work best,” Weldon said. “They’re just making broad blanket statements.”

He said the national bureau has been conservative in the policies it has put in place, and that while that may be fine for a state like Kentucky, in New York, it leaves the wardens in a tough spot.

Weldon said Warden Stanley Lovett can issue policy changes on his own, but that he’s not sure why Lovett has not.

“The (Bureau of Prisons) is kind of intimidating him to do it the way that they want it done, or else,” Weldon said. “I personally feel bad for the position that the warden is in right now.”

As an example of how the Bureau of Prisons can influence health, Weldon said on March 22 he had told Lovett he shouldn’t allow visiting at the facility. Lovett stopped visitations but was going to reopen it again this week. When the Bureau of Prisons issued a 30-day visitation stoppage, Weldon said that kept the inmates and staff at FCI Ray Brook safe.

“In my opinion they should lock the inmates in and force a social distancing,” Weldon said. “This will in turn allow us to have less contact with the inmates and less contact with each other.”

This essentially means inmates would stay in their cells and instead of gathering for meals and recreation, everything would be brought to them.

Weldon said the prison’s personal protective equipment supply is good, but that they’ll run through it quickly if the virus spreads.

Other problems are being reported in state facilities, which are seeing their own spread of COVID-19 statewide and in the North Country.

Assemblyman Billy Jones, a former corrections officer, said he and other prison officials have had to fight the state for every precautionary step that has been taken.

“We fought to get inmate visitation stopped and we fought to get inmate transportation stopped,” Jones said. “I think we were a little behind on that. I wish corrections would have acted faster on some of this stuff.”

Now, he said they are fighting to supply the staff with personal protective equipment. Jones said the state Department of Health is prohibiting mask usage, citing a policy that says masks are not part of an official uniform.

He said while employees in New York City prisons have been allowed to wear N95s and other face masks, upstate employees are still banned from wearing them. Jones said he is not sure why people working in population-dense environments would not be allowed to wear masks.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Jones said. “I’m kind of dumbfounded on this one.”

Corrections officers have said they could use their own masks and state Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association Northern Region Vice President John Roberts said the union has even offered to purchase its own masks at no cost to the state.

Roberts said the governor or the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision commissioner can make an order allowing usage of N95 masks.

On Monday U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Bureau of Prisons to prioritize getting PPEs to correctional officers.

“The state has been slow to act on their concerns in implementing precautionary measures to mitigate the spread,” Stefanik said. “My office asked for prisons to stop prisoner transfers and visits weeks ago, and New York was too slow in implementing those changes.”

Roberts also said the state’s policy changes to slow the spread of COVID-19 should have started weeks earlier.

“I’d say it’s definitely too late,” Roberts said. “These measures should have been taken sooner.”

He said he believes it will spread through the corrections system more, saying that we have not even scratched the surface of testing in the North Country.

He said most facilities are still running recreation and meals, and added that it is a “tough decision” to stop these practices.

Jones said there has been some confusion over the transfer stop order which was issued on Sunday, March 22. He said while the order was put into place Monday, transportation was reopened on Tuesday to get in-transit inmates back to their main locations.

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