coronavirus

State Prisoners Punished for Wearing Masks as City Jails OK Them

Prisoner-rights advocates held a vigil outside Sing Sing on Friday calling for the release of elderly inmates and those with compromised immune systems.
Prisoner-rights advocates held a vigil outside Sing Sing on Friday calling for the release of elderly inmates and those with compromised immune systems. Photo: Courtesy of Release Aging People in Prison Campaign

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Two state prisoners were punished for wearing makeshift masks to protect themselves from coronavirus, defense lawyers said — even as New York City announced Friday it’s giving protective wear to detainees at Rikers Island and other local jails.

A prisoner at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility was hit with a disciplinary ticket for covering her face while delivering food trays to people in quarantine, according to a letter sent Thursday by the Legal Aid Society to the prison system’s top lawyer, Adam Silverman.

Meanwhile, a prisoner in Shawangunk Correctional Facility suffering from flu-like symptoms who tried to cover his face was put in keeplock, a form of solitary, the missive says.

“This is unconscionable,” said Stefen Short, a Legal Aid Society lawyer, who wrote the letter. “While we understand the usual rationale for the rule, there is no question that it is dangerous and unreasonable to enforce that rule during this pandemic.”

Rachel Connors, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), said: “While there has been much discussion of the widespread use of face masks, our current policy follows CDC and New York State Department of Health guidance as it pertains to their use.”

Any prisoner in isolation or quarantine is given a surgical-type mask, she added.

Shifting Advice

The CDC and even the World Health Organization previously said healthy people only need to wear masks only if they are taking care of sick people. But a growing number of health experts and government authorities globally are now urging universal mask-wearing to help prevent the virus’ spread.

On Thursday, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene advised all New Yorkers to cover their noses and mouths using a scarf, bandana or piece of clothing when in public to reduce the risk of transmission. The recommendation was based on an April 1 study from the CDC that outlines the possibility of pre-symptomatic COVID-19 transmission in Singapore.

As a result, the city Correction Department will be issuing masks to all jail officers and inmates, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday. More than 300 workers and inmates at city jails have tested positive for the virus.

The union representing the state’s approximately 20,000 correction officers bought masks for all its members, according to James Miller, a spokesperson for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association.

He declined to discuss the state’s mask policy for prisoners, saying, “That’s up to DOCCS.”

“There’s been a concern from day one about staff and inmates’ safety,” he added. “That’s why the union lobbied so hard to suspend visits, volunteer programs and non-essential construction, and limiting transports unless it is for medical emergencies. And allowing staff to wear N-95 masks.”

Virus Cases Growing

Still, the number of prison personnel and prisoners with coronavirus has been increasing daily.

Some 201 staffers and 36 prisoners in the state system had confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Friday morning, officials said.

DOCCS has also logged three apparent COVID-19 related deaths: a civilian employee and two incarcerated individuals whose official causes of death are pending determinations by the County Medical Examiner.

On Friday, a group of activists gathered outside Sing Sing prison in Ossining, where one of the prisoners, Juan Mosquero, 55, died after experiencing flu-like symptoms. He tested positive for COVID-19, Gothamist reported.

Ivan Calaff, who was released from Sing Sing in 2018 after serving nearly 20 years, said he worked in the law library with Mosquero.

“He didn’t deserve this,” Calaff said. “We need political leaders who are willing to do the right thing. We don’t have the luxury of time. [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo, do the right thing.”

Updated Guidance

Following new CDC guidance on use of cloth face coverings, DOCCS announced Monday that it will soon issue an interim policy permitting prisoners to use state issued handkerchiefs to cover their mouths, and give face masks to those who are isolated or in quarantine.

While no one will be punished going forward, past actions are up for consideration, according to the state prisons spokesperson.

“If any mitigating factors are present in any prior disciplinary action, they can be carefully considered in any appeal,” said Connors.

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