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FCI Ray Brook keeps inmates in cells as more staff are infected

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)

RAY BROOK — The Federal Bureau of Prisons has issued a nationwide shelter-in-place order for inmates in its facilities, keeping them mostly in their cells for the next two weeks during the coronavirus pandemic.

But James Weldon says this order is “a day late and a dollar short.” He’s the president of AFGE CPL33, Local 3882, the union representing corrections officers at the Federal Correctional Institute at Ray Brook.

The facility announced Thursday that two more staff members tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, bringing the current total to four. So far, the BOP has not announced that any inmate has contracted the virus.

Andrew Hastings, a corrections officer at FCI Ray Brook, has been on a ventilator at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh since Wednesday.

“He’s not doing great,” his sister-in-law Lisa Jimenez said.

In addition to being intubated, she said he is having troubles with his blood pressure, kidneys and liver, and that his fever spiked at 104.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Jimenez said his family was in quarantine and his wife Justine, Jimenez’s sister, had to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital while she and their five kids waited at home.

Jimenez said Hastings’ family is going through a very difficult time and that she is unhappy with the way the prison is being run.

“They’re upset. He wasn’t considered an essential worker but a dispensable worker,” Jimenez said.

She said the staff should have been allowed to wear their own personal protective equipment and that people in the facility should have had less contact with each other.

She said that as of Thursday afternoon, the prison’s administration had not reached out to call her sister and that when she called the prison herself, the warden couldn’t talk with her.

She said Hastings is being required to use his sick leave while he battles this illness, which she said will eventually run out.

She started a GoFundMe fundraising web page titled “Federal CO, Andrew Hastings’ Battle with COVID-19.” It had raised $17,266, well beyond its $5,000 goal, by Thursday afternoon.

“The outpouring of love and prayers and donations and calls and support has been overwhelming,” Jimenez said. “We always knew that the North Country took care of their own, but this is incredible.”

Conditions inside

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Weldon said the shelter-in-place order means inmates are locked in their cells and only let out for major things or medical reasons.

Sue Allison, a public information supervisor for the BOP, said the colloquial term “lockdown” doesn’t apply here because those are only issued in punitive situations. Rather, this is an “operation modification” made to mimic other shelter-in-place orders around the nation.

Allison said inmates can still get out and shower or use the phone, but in restricted measures and in smaller groups. Their meals are brought to them and they will participate in regular programs over video chat.

Weldon said this is good but does not go far enough.

“They should allow officers to wear PPE,” Weldon said.

Weldon, who is waiting on test results himself, said while the BOP is fit-testing staff for personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, it still does not let them wear the safety equipment.

Weldon said multiple staff members have been sent home to quarantine, and that understaffing may become a problem if the number of potentially infected officers who must stay home rises.

“Everybody is scared,” Weldon said. “Everybody is petrified, to be honest with you.

“It’s mostly because of what seems to be the lack of concern coming from the administration at the prison.”

He said a meeting took place Thursday between U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik’s staff, the BOP and the Essex County Health Department.

(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Andrew Hastings and his wife have seven children; they have five. The Enterprise regrets the error.)

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