prisons

State Prison Virus Cases Mounting as Outside Figures Plateau

Activists outside Queensboro Correctional Facility protest incarcerating people in state jails amid COVID-19 pandemic, April 14, 2020.
Activists outside Queensboro Correctional Facility protest incarcerating people in state jails amid COVID-19 pandemic, April 14, 2020. Photo: lev radin/Shutterstock

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As new cases plateau in the epicenter of New York’s coronavirus outbreak, state prisons appear to still be heading for their apex.

Even with limited testing, positive COVID-19 cases in the prisons are mounting in a curve that follows New York City and State’s outbreak — but about two weeks behind, an analysis by THE CITY shows. The trajectory, suggesting an increasingly dire crisis behind bars, added renewed urgency to advocates’ calls to release more prisoners.

The system recorded its biggest single-day jump from Thursday to Friday, with 25 prisoner tests coming back positive and one negative. On Sunday, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) reported a total of 783 cases among staff and 210 among prisoners.

The actual number of infected prisoners is likely even higher, epidemiologists said. Across the entire system of 43,000 prisoners, fewer than 20 a day were tested last week, which is roughly one-third of the testing rate for New Yorkers at large.

Approximately 70% of prisoner tests with results back have been positive, compared to about 50% for the city.

Dr. Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at New York University, cautioned that the prison-related cases already logged may be far from the only ones.

“It’s clear that they have an issue and they should be making public health interventions based on the fact that the number of cases are going up over time,” she said.

There have been five COVID-19-related prisoner deaths in the state and one staff death, according to DOCCS, which will not release the names of the deceased.

One of the five prisoners was not tested for coronavirus before dying.

‘Vastly Underreported’

The state also has declined to publicly reveal which of its 52 Correction Department facilities have cases and how many, prompting calls for transparency from advocates.

“Given our recent monitoring findings that 74% of incarcerated people surveyed were unable to access needed medical care last year, we are very concerned about the state’s ability to care for people in prison during a pandemic,” said Jennifer Scaife, the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit that monitors state prisons.

“We fear that the extent of the spread of the disease inside prisons is vastly underreported,” added Scaife.

The first reported coronavirus cases in New York state prisons lagged behind those in the city. The Department of Corrections reported one positive case among staff on March 16, more than two weeks after the city’s first confirmed case on March 1 and upstate’s on March 2. The agency confirmed its first infections of prisoners the week of March 25.

Even with a likely partial picture of infections, the pattern of reported cases seems to follow the city’s arc, albeit on delay.

“If it follows the general New York City population, we should start seeing a plateau [this] week, assuming they have isolated infected individuals,” said Dr. Elodie Ghedin, a virologist and professor of epidemiology at the Center for Genomics & Systems Biology at NYU.

But the extent of isolation is an open question, given the limited opportunity for social distancing in prison, experts said.

Areas built to accommodate up to 50 prisoners sometimes briefly hold up to 90 by “double bunking,” Anthony Annucci, the acting Corrections commissioner, testified in February. In prisons, meals and outdoor time are generally taken in groups, and many hands touch trays, phones, showers and toilets each day.

Amid the pandemic, New York prisoners also report lack of access to soap, cleaning materials, protective equipment and information, according to the Correctional Association. The group recently surveyed 67 family and friends of people in prisons about coronavirus concerns.

“Now he is so close to coming home and he is left vulnerable to contracting COVD-19 and dying alone in that hell hole,” one respondent said.

‘Frantic’ Pleas

Prisoners are more likely than the general public to have had chronic medical conditions, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report, potentially increasing their risk of severe COVID-19 cases.

One family member of a man at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora told THE CITY that prisoners along a corridor were reporting they could not breathe and calling out for medical attention, but were not removed for testing.

“If someone’s telling you, ‘I’m having trouble breathing, I’m having respiratory issues, if someone’s telling you I’m not feeling well, I feel feverish,’ that’s for you to take them out right there and get them tested,” said the family member, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation against the prisoner.

“These inmates, they’re calling me frantic, like, ‘call Albany, tell my wife, call Albany.’”

The Cuomo administration has identified 171 people who are both over age 50 and within 90 days of their planned release date for early freedom. As of Friday, none had been sprung.

Other states have cast a much wider net among those serving time for nonviolent offenses: California Gov. Gavin Newsom in March said 3,500 prisoners statewide would be eligible for freedom, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf will consider those with release dates up to a year out, The Patriot-News reported.

Under an executive order from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, the state is considering those with upcoming release dates of any age, as well as older prisoners, those with high medical risk and those denied parole in the last year, for home confinement — excluding people with a list of convictions that includes murder and sexual assault.

New York federal prisoners Dean Skelos, the former state senate leader, and Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, are also headed home, according to press reports.

Calls for Cuomo Action

Advocates for New York state prisoners say the Cuomo administration should do more.

“I think their hope is that not enough people will die for people to be upset,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director for activist group VOCAL-NY.

A growing cadre of celebrities, including actor Joaquin Phoenix, Sonic Youth rocker Kim Gordon and singer John Legend, have joined criminal justice groups in urging Cuomo to move quickly to release more people early and use his clemency powers.

“At the state level, we urge that much more be done — and faster — to follow neighboring states and reduce jail and prison populations,” the New York City Bar Association said in a statement Wednesday.

Women locked up in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility say those with symptoms are being housed on top of each other in a so-called isolation area — and then released back into the general population after two weeks without any testing, according to Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Queens), chair of the Assembly Committee of Correction.

“There’s a real problem of social distancing,” he said, noting that the women are worried about making others sick.

The state says it tests symptomatic prisoners after a medical evaluation, and that people who have been tested are kept in isolation pending results.

They are returned to the general population when they have completely recovered, have been isolated for 14 days and have no evidence of a fever for 72 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication, Rachel Connors, a DOCCS spokesperson, said in an email.

‘A No-Brainer’

Double-bunking people behind bars to save space allows for medium-security prisons typically built to hold 50 prisoners to actually house between 60 to 90 people.

Prisoner advocates, as well as the union representing state correction officers, are opposed to the practice, saying it increases violence and is an inhumane way to house people.

Double bunking has gotten new attention as the number of COVID-19 cases behind bars grows.

The Corrections Department issued a statewide memo in March directing facilities to limit the practice “to the extent practical to facilitate social distancing during this global health emergency,” according to Connors.

“As a result, 75% of double bunks are now vacant,” she added, declining to detail the total number of double bunk beds still being used.

A bill, with bipartisan support, to prohibit the practice is pending in Albany.

Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Queens)
Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Queens) Photo: Mike Wren/New York State Department of Health

“To me it’s a no brainer,” said Weprin, who noted the state plans to close three undisclosed prisons this year as the population continues to decline. Cuomo has shuttered 17 prisons since taking office in 2011.

As for the steady increase in coronavirus cases, advocates question if the numbers are actually higher than what has publicly been disclosed.

They point out that far more officers and other department staff (783) have tested positive for COVID-19 than prisoners (210), even though prisoners outnumber staff.

“When you have thousands of guards in close proximity to prisoners, I don’t know how you can have a threefold difference,” Dave George, the associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign, said. “It really doesn’t add up.”

Prisoner Keep to Cells

Some prisoners are doing their best to socially distance by staying in their cells nearly nonstop, according to defense attorney and City University of New York law professor Steve Zeidman.

“The version of social distancing I have heard from many folks inside is that because they see few correction officers wearing masks or gloves, and their fear is about COs bringing the virus in to them, they choose to spend close to 24/7 in their cells,” Zeidman said.

Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law
Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Advocates are urging the Cuomo administration to allow prisoners to use their tablets to make free phone calls via JPay, which operates the service. The state is reviewing the idea, Weprin said.

“Several men told me to expect fewer phone calls because they are afraid to go to that area because it forces people to congregate,” Zeidman said. “Same with the gym, the yard and similar places.”

Men and women inside are also improvising their own protective gear to the extent possible and permitted, Zeidman added.

But they fear the virus’ spread is far beyond their control. Zeidman heard from a client last month who said a fellow inmate died from it.

“This guy was in the law library every day using the typewriter, God knows who used it after him,” the prisoner wrote. “This is getting serious.”

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