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Most of county’s COVID cases are in prisons

Inmates account for over half of Franklin County COVID cases

Days after the peak of a COVID-19 spike at two state prisons in Malone, the number of cases is again rising each day.

Franklin County on Monday reported 139 inmates at Franklin Correctional and 21 at Bare Hill Correctional are positive with the virus. That is down from a few days ago. Data from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision showed 199 inmates at Franklin Correctional and 36 inmates at Bare Hill Correctional were positive as of Friday. DOCCS has not updated its numbers since then.

Franklin County has reported more than 100 resolved cases county-wide in the past few days. Some were from these prisons, but over the past three days it has also reported new cases elsewhere.

The county reported 39 new inmates testing positive on Saturday, 12 new inmates on Sunday and 14 new inmates on Monday.

These new case numbers account for more than half of the positive cases in the entire county and the vast majority of the 206 currently positive in the town of Malone.

There are 27 pending tests at Franklin Correctional and 37 at Bare Hill Correctional. Upstate Correctional, a third-state prison in Malone, also has three positive inmates and 25 pending tests.

Reason and response

DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey said people gathering for the holidays caused a chain reaction which led the virus into prisons.

“Community spread continues to be a driving factor behind the spread of COVID-19, and just as the entire state had seen an uptick in cases throughout the holidays, New York’s correctional facilities have experienced this same trend,” Mailey wrote in an email.

Once the virus is in a prison the environment makes it difficult to stop the spread. Prisons have high numbers of people congregated in tight areas where social distancing is not possible and ventilation is low.

“We are seeing a higher infection rate with employees at the prisons,” county Manager Donna Kissane said.

Mailey said when inmates test positive they are isolated, their contacts are traced, and anyone exposed is quarantined.

“Almost all of the positives we’re seeing in prisons are asymptomatic,” he wrote.

He said intake of individuals from county jails has been temporarily suspended, and movement between facilities has also slowed.

Visitation at all state prisons has been temporarily suspended.

Mailey said New York has done a better job than other states with COVID-19 in its prisons.

“DOCCS has managed to limit its impact with relative success when judged against its peers,” Mailey said. “New York State has a lower prison infection rate per capita than 45 other states.”

Masks and monitoring

Mailey said DOCCS staff are provided with sufficient personal protective equipment and are mandated to wear masks while on duty. He said DOCCS’ Office of Special investigations has been performing compliance monitoring at facilities and has shown that compliance is high.

But some say compliance is not so high. A lawsuit filed by three inmates at Adirondack Correctional Facility, a state prison for elderly inmates in Ray Brook, and the Release Aging People in Prison campaign alleges that “staff regularly do not wear masks inside of the housing units, both when interacting with other staff members and with people who are incarcerated.”

Mailey said all inmates have been issued reusable masks throughout the course of the pandemic. Those in isolation or quarantine are supplied with surgical-type masks.

RAPP Director Jose Saldana has said each inmate is given one mask they wash and must make last days.

Testing and vaccination

In facilities experiencing spikes, Mailey said DOCCS has deployed rapid testing for staff. He did not say if Franklin or Bare Hill Correctional were included in those facilities. He said DOCCS is implementing a voluntary staff testing program at each of its facilities.

He said the entire incarcerated population has been tested for COVID-19 and an asymptomatic testing program began on Dec. 21 to test random populations in every facility on a daily basis.

DOCCS staff, including correction and parole officers, are included in phase 1b of the state’s vaccination plan, but inmates are not yet.

“DOCCS is still working with (the state Department of Health) to develop a plan, as part of the New York State COVID-19 Vaccination Program, for the incarcerated population,” Mailey wrote.

RAPP and releases

RAPP has advocated for clemency for inmates vulnerable to the virus, mostly the elderly. It issued a press release Monday after state data showed more than 5,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past year. Around 3,025 of those people have tested positive in the two months since Dec. 1, 2020.

“The COVID-19 crisis continues to be a nightmare for incarcerated New Yorkers and their families,” RAPP Associate Director Dave George wrote. “Because Governor (Andrew) Cuomo refuses to grant clemencies or provide vaccine access to incarcerated people, COVID-19 is ripping through New York’s prisons. State lawmakers in Albany must step up to stop the spread and harm of the virus by passing the Elder Parole, Fair and Timely Parole, and HALT Solitary Confinement bills.”

The press release points out that Cuomo has granted 10 clemencies to inmates in the first 10 months of the pandemic.

DOCCS’ position is that it has already decreased its incarcerated population. Figures from the state department show the number of incarcerated individuals it holds as of Feb. 1 is 33,376. This is 10,900 fewer than on Jan. 1, 2020, and, according to DOCCS, the lowest total incarcerated population in state prisons since 1984.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, DOCCS has allowed around 3,557 individuals to be released early.

This includes 791 people who have had their low-level — nonviolent, non-sex offense — parole violations canceled; 2,754 people serving time for nonviolent, non-sex offenses who were within 90 days of their approved release date; and 12 women who were pregnant or postpartum, committed on nonviolent, non-sex offenses, and within 180 days of their approved release date.

DOCCS information says these people are connected to the services and support that they need to succeed in the community, such as housing and health care.

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