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Fewer prisoners will mean less virus spread, legislative panelists say

DOCCS will stop double-bunking as a precaution

Adirondack Correctional Center, a state prison in Ray Brook for older inmates, is seen in July. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

ALBANY — The state must continue to reduce the number of incarcerated New Yorkers, panelists said during a legislative hearing Tuesday, as officials remain concerned about a potential second wave of COVID-19 in state prisons and the start of flu season.

Legislators in the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee held a public hearing Tuesday to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on prisons and jails, including a status for inmates released early due to the coronavirus pandemic and how agencies plan to keep infection numbers low. Committee Chairman Luis Sepulveda, D-Bronx, and Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, led the discussion.

More than 11,000 New Yorkers are jailed and 37,000 people are in state prisons, according to nysenate.gov. The state reports 773 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, and 1,329 corrections employees. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision also has 90 parolees who contracted the disease.

“Staying 6 feet apart is almost impossible to do,” said Maurice Wilcox, formerly incarcerated at Eastern Correctional Facility in Ulster County, who explained dozens of inmates frequently remain only 2 or 3 feet apart when crowded in hallways, common areas or bathrooms.

“I’ve been to all the facilities — it’s just impossible,” he said. “You cannot do it in a yard. You cannot do it in the hallway. You cannot do it in the cell blocks. It’s too condensed in the prison system to do anything if we had a rampant outbreak. … You cannot contain it unless you look at decreasing the population.”

Three formerly incarcerated men, who each served several years in correctional facilities statewide, on Tuesday detailed prison conditions at the height of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak this spring.

Inmates at several correctional facilities were sent away from the infirmary or sick ward unless they exhibited severe coronavirus symptoms, and some died after not receiving treatment, the men said.

Jermaine Barrett was released from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County on July 28 after 15 years in prison. He told the story of a fellow inmate who went to the prison’s sick hall four times and complained about breathing difficulties and other COVID-19 symptoms, but was repeatedly sent back to his cell.

“He was told to go back until he succumbed to his injuries and died,” Barrett said. “They stated if your temperature wasn’t above 104 degrees, no immediate action would take place.”

Barrett was housed in Green Haven’s Unit for the Physically Disabled.

“People there are in wheelchairs or missing limbs or that nature,” he said, adding inmates struggled to have assistance putting on face masks or adequate access to washing their hands.

Facilities provide inadequate medical treatment to inmates, Barrett said, adding prison health services were a problem before the pandemic.

The state requires large, open facilities such as malls and gyms to have a MERV-13 or higher rated filter in air circulation systems to cleanse the virus particles from the air. Prison cells have windows, but lack proper ventilation, Wilcox said.

Several testified prison staff and administrators often fail to wear masks or proper personal protective equipment.

“Based on direct observation by my staff, at least half of New York City correction officers are not wearing masks or are wearing them around their chin with nose and mouths exposed,” said Stan Germn, executive director of New York County Defenders Service. “It’s unfathomable after what this city and state have gone through — we are refusing to wear masks in a jail, of all places.”

Seventeen inmates, five staff members and four parolees died as a result of the virus, said Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of DOCCS. The department has faced criticism from criminal justice advocacy groups, which believe there hasn’t been adequate testing in state correctional facilities.

Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-Bronx, said the state tested fewer incarcerated citizens compared to other U.S. states.

“I wouldn’t say that’s accurate, Senator,” Annucci replied. “Everyone’s protocols are different.”

DOCCS’ diagnostic coronavirus testing frequency appears to be changing, according to the latest information available on DOCCS’ website. DOCCS has performed 13,012 COVID-19 tests since mid-March, as of 3 p.m. Monday. There are 1,038 pending tests, a vast majority of which are for incarcerated individuals in Western New York prisons.

Annucci told legislators DOCCS opted to test the incarcerated individuals in its western hub because of an increase in COVID-19 cases in the Buffalo area and neighboring counties. Symptomatic inmates and those over age 55 are regularly tested for COVID-19, or for contact tracing.

DOCCS lacks a sufficient number of influenza vaccinations before the height of the annual flu season from October through next March or April.

“So you have to ration flu vaccines?” asked Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan. “I find that absolutely unacceptable.”

Inmates working at prison manufacturing company Corcraft produced more than 6 million bottles of the state’s NYS Clean hand sanitizer. Operations started at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Washington County, but recently ended, and will cease at other facilities soon, Annucci said.

Corcraft workers make a starting wage of 16 cents per hour.

Annucci told lawmakers Tuesday the total incarcerated population in New York is at 36,704, its lowest point since 1986. The prison population has decreased by about 7,500 since January.

Each of the state’s 52 correctional facilities will cease double-bunking inmates to reduce density in preparation for virus resurgence, the commissioner said.

“DOCCS has conducted tabletop exercises to prepare for additional positive cases,” Annucci said. “Medical staff have been trained in infection control across the state.”

DOCCS created a coronavirus task force to monitor and assess all potential virus responses and to maintain regular communication with superintendents and staff.

“DOCCS has taken a number of actions including removing nonessential staff from the workplace, suspending visitation and programs, deploying masks to staff and making hand sanitizer available,” the commissioner said of how the state mitigated COVID-19 infections in prisons.

In-person visitation resumed last month at 50% capacity. A brief hug is permitted at the beginning and end of visits, and masks are required.

Some witnesses detailed inconsistencies in mask policies in state correctional facilities. Prisons significantly lacked sufficient PPE such as face masks, swabs and gloves, when the state was the virus epicenter through March and April.

“The failure to provide PPE dragged on for months and into April,” recalled Benny Boscio, president of the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association. “Officers brought in their own masks to wear. They were told bringing in their own masks wasn’t permitted and they should go home.”

Officers must be regularly tested for the virus and not forced to return to work too soon after battling an illness, Boscio said.

“My members still went to work and had to grapple with inmates coughing and spitting in their faces,” he added. “Corrections officers are the unsung heroes.”

Video calling technology and services must be made available to all inmates, said Osborne Association President Elizabeth Gaynes, who advocated for further reducing the state’s incarcerated population before a second wave.

“The approach to COVID has to be releasing more people,” Gaynes said. “That is something you as the Legislature and governor have way more power over than DOCCS.”

Released inmates should have been placed in hotels along the state Thruway and Lincoln Center in Manhattan to quarantine before returning home, she said.

Several panelists and advocates encouraged lawmakers to further reduce the number of incarcerated New Yorkers, or granting clemency to all elderly or medically vulnerable inmates, those within one year of release, inmates charged with nonviolent crimes within 90 days of their earliest release dates and those incarcerated for technical parole violations.

“No one was in that facility to be sentenced to death,” said Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who called on the Legislature to pass the Less is More Act, or state incarceration reform. “Consider to expand compassion for release of elders and the medically vulnerable … release pregnant people, and transgender people highly susceptible to abuse or medical care failures while incarcerated.

“You hear counties did a good job (containing COVID-19) based on the numbers, but human beings are not numbers.”

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Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

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