The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is planning to restart the Family Reunion Program in September after a nearly 18-month suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Family Reunion Program is offered at 22 state prisons, including Auburn Correctional Facility. It allows incarcerated individuals and their families to have extended visits in a "private home-like setting."
DOCCS suspended the program when the pandemic began in March 2020. When the department allowed traditional inmate visitation to resume last summer and again in April after temporary shutdowns due to COVID-19, the Family Reunion Program remained closed.
Now that COVID-19 vaccinations have been administered in correctional facilities and the positivity rate has decreased, DOCCS will allow the program to resume. According to the department's website, the plan is to restart the program on Wednesday, Sept. 8.
A memo posted on DOCCS' website details the protocols that will be in place for the Family Reunion Program when it resumes in September. Incarcerated individuals and family members participating in the program must be fully vaccinated. For family members, they must provide proof of vaccination at least two weeks before the visit. Children under age 12 must have a negative COVID-19 test within three days of the visit. They must show proof of the test result when they are screened at the facility.
Masks are required while outside of the Family Reunion Program unit. There will be cleaning products provided for visits. DOCCS will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and sanitize the units after each use.
"We must remain cognizant that the COVID-19 pandemic is still occurring, and the situation remains ever-changing," DOCCS states in its memo. "Barring any adverse changes that would require the department to reassess the safety of resuming FRP, you can expect continued communication on this topic prior to the September 8, 2021 reopening date."
Thomas Mailey, a DOCCS spokesperson, wrote in an email to The Citizen that the memo "speaks for itself" and did not provide any further comment on the resumption of the program.
Many state prisons dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks since the pandemic began in March 2020. DOCCS has reported 12,150 confirmed cases among its incarcerated population, parolees and staff. Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the Southern Tier, had 618 inmates test positive for the virus — the most of any state prison.
Cayuga County's state prisons, Auburn and Cayuga correctional facilities, each had outbreaks. There were 179 inmate cases at Cayuga and 125 at Auburn.
DOCCS has completed vaccination clinics at its facilities, according to Mailey. He said the department has administered at least one vaccine dose to 14,100 incarcerated individuals — 44% of the statewide prison population.
Mailey added that DOCCS is "re-polling all facilities for interest in receiving the vaccine and has additional clinics scheduled this week."
It's unknown how many employees are vaccinated because the vaccine is not mandatory for staff. If they receive the vaccine at a community clinic, they aren't required to report that to DOCCS.
But Mailey said that 7,550 employees accepted the first dose of a vaccine at a DOCCS clinic and 7,994 employees received their second dose or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine from the department.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.