Union: Suspend prison visitation to curb COVID

C-GM file photo The outside of Coxsackie Correctional facility, a maximum-security prison, on Route 9W in Greene County.

Union leaders representing state correction officers want the state Department of Correction and Community Supervision to suspend visitation or require visitors and vendors show a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination as New York coronavirus infections shattered records Wednesday for the fifth time this week.

The state reported 28,924 new virus cases Wednesday, or 10.66% positive — a new daily record since the pandemic began.

The number of active COVID-19 cases within state prisons has increased more than 35% since Dec. 10, with 442 active virus cases in prisons as of Dec. 10 and 596 active cases as of Monday. The number of active cases increased to 634 infections Tuesday, according to DOCCS.

With a rising COVID winter surge, New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association President Michael Powers penned a letter to DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci on Wednesday urging the commissioner to temporarily suspend visitation at the state’s 50 correctional facilities or impose more stringent safety protocols to require visitors and vendors show a recent negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination.

“Temporarily shuttering visitation, or alternatively implementing further safety measures for visitors and contractors will help slow the transmission of COVID-19 within, and ultimately outside, of the state’s prisons,” Powers wrote. “It is our hope that we can work together with DOCCS to provide prospective and implement these changes to visitation immediately.”

As of Tuesday, DOCCS reports 7,880 staff members and 8,054 incarcerated people have become infected with the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Four incarcerated New Yorkers who died from COVID complications have been added to the department’s online dashboard in the last month, including one person held at Albion Correctional Facility in Orleans County, one at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Westchester County and two within the last week at Mohawk/Walsh prison hospice facility, Oneida County, within Mohawk Correctional.

One of the COVID deaths took place in April, but was added to the virus dashboard this month after the department received the autopsy report indicating the death was COVID-related, according to DOCCS. Thirty-nine incarcerated New Yorkers have died from coronavirus complications to date.

One additional DOCCS staffer died from the virus this month, bringing the total number of COVID staff fatalities to 15, according to the department.

“Since the pandemic began, the department has carefully watched the progression of the virus, working with the state Department of Health on appropriate changes in policies and procedures, and continues to focus on keeping staff and the incarcerated population safe and secure,” DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said in a statement Wednesday. “The department is continuously considering what steps need to be taken next and if any changes need to be made. We have been actively reviewing modifications to our visitation criteria prior to receipt of the letter. The current policy restricts anyone who is positive or quarantined from visiting.”

VISITORS REQUEST PROTOCOL PARITY

Theresa, who requested her last name not be published for fear of retaliation, regularly visits her husband at Green Haven Correctional in Dutchess County.

Coronavirus infections have increased 9% in Green Haven alone over the past two weeks.

Theresa’s husband, who is 67, suffers from underlying kidney issues.

“I believe in the science and the vaccine — the evidence-based COVID protocols are necessary,” Theresa said. “But I still have fear and fear him becoming infected with COVID.”

Theresa’s husband has been incarcerated for 17 years of a 40-year flat bid on attempted murder charges.

She visits her husband at the maximum-security prison in Stormville at least three times per month, and said Wednesday visitation should not be suspended with the prevalence of the COVID vaccine and testing. The vaccine, booster shots and COVID tests allow for safe visitation as the pandemic continues.

“My husband is sick, and visitation... that’s my lifeline to my husband — to be able to see him and know he’s doing well,” Theresa said. “If anything, visits should not be suspended. A protocol to take a swab test or show your vaccine card would be a way of keeping the visitation safe.”

All parties who leave and enter a correction facility should be required to follow the safety protocol to curb COVID transmission, Theresa said.

“Officers, staff, workers as well as visitors should be required to get a swab test,” she said. “You need to ask officers to do the same thing and have no different protocol than us. It will help keep the correctional officers staff safe, and we’ll be safe.”

All New York state employees, including DOCCS staff, were required to have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose as of Oct. 12 or undergo weekly testing until fully vaccinated.

“All New York state employees report their vaccination and test results through a secure submission portal,” Mailey said. “The department continues to work with the various unions on having all staff follow the state requirement.”

All visitors, incarcerated people and staff are required to wear a mask during processing and throughout the visit. A visit may be denied if a visitor does not have a mask.

But Theresa said she frequently sees officers refusing to wear a mask or face covering while visitors remain masked. Several incarcerated people and family members of people in prison have said prison staff frequently neglect to satisfy or enforce the state safety protocol requiring they wear face masks.

“Officers may be part of the problem because they don’t wear masks,” she said, adding prison staff continue to bring the virus into facilities. “They’re supposed to wear masks — we’re supposed to wear masks. How about you all have masks on like we do? I’ve seen them quite often not wearing a mask.

“The reality is, the officers go through the facility every day unmasked. That’s the only way to save lives.”

Visitors must undergo a health screening and temperature check before permitted entry.

Visitors have their temperatures taken, Theresa said, but have started to wait in line in freezing temperatures for an extended period for processing before their visit. Visitors waiting a half-hour or more in the low temperatures could skew data, she added.

Tables, vending machines and other shared areas are disinfected after each visit, according to doccs.ny.gov.

PRISON VAX RATES BELOW STATE AVERAGE

New COVID-19 cases have increased more than tenfold since July, Powers said, citing data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The more contagious Delta and newly emerging Omicron variant discovered in South Africa last month continue to rapidly spread across the state and nation with concerns of a winter surge.

To date, 17,669 DOCCS staff, or about 69.5%, have reported they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 via the state employee submission portal, Mailey said.

As of Wednesday, 16,050, or 52.1% of incarcerated individuals have been partially or fully vaccinated, or fully vaccinated with an additional booster dose.

“In the ongoing effort to encourage the incarcerated population to get the vaccine, and if eligible for the booster, the department continues to offer the vaccine to the incarcerated population,” Mailey said. “Educational videos regarding the importance of receiving the COVID vaccine are being displayed statewide. DOCCS continues to re-poll all facilities for interest in receiving the vaccine and booster and continues to schedule clinics.”

DOCCS developed a statewide asymptomatic surveillance program in consultation with the Health Department to randomly test the incarcerated population in every prison on a daily basis.

“This program began last December and continues today,” Mailey said of how the department remains proactive to fighting COVID infections.

Coronavirus testing protocols are the same for prisons as in the community, with DOCCS-employed physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants working with nurses and following Health Department guidelines.

“...Incarcerated individuals are tested when exhibiting symptoms and after a medical evaluation is conducted,” Mailey said. “Our process identifies those patients who are ill, requiring special monitoring and care, and isolates those who exhibit any symptoms or have a positive test.”

Any person exposed to a patient with an active COVID case is immediately placed into quarantine and given a nasal swab test sent to an authorized lab.

Any person who tests positive for the virus is placed in isolation for a minimum of 14 days. People in quarantine who receive a negative test remain in isolation for the 14-day period, Mailey said.

“For individuals who need enhanced levels of care, we access our network of outside hospitals to ensure the population receives the necessary treatment and services,” he added.

Statewide infections have increased to 116 cases per 100,000 residents statewide or 8.58% positive over a seven-day average.

Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency Dec. 10, announcing a new mask or vaccination mandate for businesses that took effect Dec. 13. The new protocol demonstrates the necessity for DOCCS to implement additional safety measures, Powers said.

“Employees represent only a portion of the individuals who are entering correctional facilities on a daily basis,” Powers wrote to Annucci. “Visitation rooms at correctional facilities are a point of daily and persistent vulnerability for the spread of COVID-19 and place both staff and incarcerated individuals at greater risk of infection and harm.”

Representatives with Hochul’s office deferred to DOCCS’s statements. They did not respond to requests for comment about the governor’s stance on suspending or amending visitation rules in correctional facilities, or how many incarcerated New Yorkers she will grant clemency to further reduce the number of people behind bars and prevent COVID community transmission.

Visitation was suspended in state prisons at the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, and resumed Aug. 5, 2020, with visiting rooms at half-capacity to ensure social distancing. Outdoor visiting areas are used when the weather permits.

“Since the onset of this pandemic, the members of NYSCOPBA have been unable to ‘work remotely’ to protect their health and well-being, instead being required to work inside prison facilities, exposing themselves to contracting the virus and bringing it home to their loved ones,” Powers said in a statement Wednesday. “In that time, nearly 8,000 members have contracted COVID and despite the department’s vaccine-or-test mandates implemented on staff, these facilities continue to be breeding grounds for COVID outbreaks as the mandates do not apply to everyone who enters these buildings. With the continued surge in cases and the looming variants, we call upon the department to immediately institute more stringent safety measures such as suspending visitation or requiring proof of vaccination/negative COVID test on visitors and vendors before more officers are needlessly exposed due to the state’s inaction.”

The total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is 30,821 people as of Wednesday, representing a reduction of more than 12,700 people since Jan. 1, 2020, or a 58% decline from since the department’s high of 72,773 people behind bars in 1999. The state’s incarcerated population is at its lowest total since 1984, according to DOCCS.

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