County demands action on prison

Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, left, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden, center, and Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, call for action from the state Wednesday to address the COVID-19 outbreak at Greene Correctional Facility. Sarah Trafton/Columbia-Greene Media

CATSKILL — County officials called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on Wednesday to take immediate action to address the COVID-19 outbreak at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie.

Following an outbreak at the state prison, which has 1,157 inmates in its custody and employs 652 people, officials are calling for visitation and transfers to end, testing for staff and mandatory tests prior to an inmate’s release.

Some of the officials’ requests are being met, said Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association.

“Visitation will cease at Greene and Elmira at 3 p.m. today,” Powers said Wednesday.

Inmate transfers from the facility have primarily ceased, except for emergency reasons, he said.

Free voluntary testing will be offered for staff at Greene and Elmira correctional facilities, Powers said.

The union will continue to push for a halt to visitation at all facilities and for testing for staff statewide, Powers said.

These actions may be too little, too late, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said.

“We’re eight months into this now. How has the state not addressed this?” he said. “You can’t social distance in general population. This knee-jerk reaction needs to end.”

By making these changes to two of the state’s 52 facilities, these types of outbreaks could repeat, Groden said.

“Are we not going to have problems at those facilities?” he said. “Those communities aren’t at risk?”

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, agreed a more comprehensive statewide plan is needed.

“We need to get this problem fixed so it doesn’t happen across the state,” he said.

The issues at Greene Correctional could become reminiscent of nursing home outbreaks, Tague said.

“If we don’t take care of this right away, we will face the same issue as nursing homes early on,” he said.

There is a disparity between requirements for corrections officers and other workers at these facilities, Groden said.

“Nursing homes have to test their staff once a week,” he said. “We’re not testing COs. Why?”

The county had 96 active COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 65 of which stemmed from the prison, Public Health Deputy Director Laura Churchill said. Two of the county’s cases are hospitalized, with one in the ICU. More than 170 residents are in quarantine, as are 94 travelers.

Although DOCCS administered mass testing for inmates at the facility, staff members who wished to be tested were sent to state testing sites or had to request a test from their physician.

Greene County Public Health stepped in to offer testing.

“Our offer to DOCCS on Oct. 13 was denied by the state,” Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said, describing it as a roadblock.

The agency received the go-ahead to provide on-site testing six days later, Linger said.

“This delayed response is unacceptable,” Linger said.

Positive cases linked to the prison have been found in one Greene County school district and nursing homes in two counties, Linger said.

A parolee who was released from the prison without being tested infected his family, Groden said.

Greene County Public Health tested 97 staff members at the facility Monday, after initially being denied provision of the on-site testing.

Ten of the tests came back negative, with the remaining tests pending, Churchill said. To date, 14 staff members have tested positive.

The testing done at the prison was not limited to Greene County residents but included residents from surrounding counties such as Albany, Rensselaer and Schoharie, Churchill said.

“This is a regional issue,” Groden said. “The prison is a regional employer.”

The cost of testing at these facilities should be borne by the state, Tague said.

“[Testing] should be at the state’s cost — not the county’s cost or a personal cost,” he said.

The additional testing at the prison put a strain on the Public Health staff, Groden said.

This is not the county’s first attempt at requesting better guidelines for prisons, Linger said.

“This is more of a desperate plea at this point,” he said. “This is not the first notification to the governor’s office. This is not the first notification to DOCCS. We’re simply asking for better communications and transparency from the state. Our offers to help seem to have fallen on deaf ears.”

Because the county’s numbers include inmates at Greene Correctional, Greene County movie theaters will not be able to open Friday.

“One-hundred inmates in Greene Correctional Facility will not go to the movies this Saturday, yet this is being held against our businesses,” Groden said. “That is wrong.”

Tague agreed the prison numbers should be extracted from the county’s data.

Guidance on Halloween procedures was released Wednesday while the county awaits guidance on the prison outbreak, Groden said.

“If this can be released on how to trick-or-treat, why are we not properly addressing thousands of inmates and the employees that work with them?” Groden said.

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