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More employees, inmates sickened as COVID-19 spreads in NY prisons

From the The Citizen's coverage of COVID-19 in NY state prisons series
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Auburn Correctional Facility. 

Inside prisons across New York, there is an increasing number of employees and inmates who contracted the coronavirus. 

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reported on Monday that 581 employees and 139 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. That's up from 319 employees and 55 inmates one week ago. 

So far, three inmates and one employee died after contracting COVID-19. 

DOCCS hasn't revealed which correctional facilities have positive cases of the coronavirus. It also hasn't detailed how inmates are isolated if they have the virus. The Citizen requested that information in an email to DOCCS Monday. But the agency responded by directing the newspaper to a COVID-19 report page on its website. 

While the agency's website does include information on its response, it doesn't explain how inmates are isolated if they test positive. It does say that inmates who are tested don't report for their work programs and are isolated until their result is known. If it's positive, they are quarantined for 14 days. 

Inmates in isolation or quarantine are given surgical masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to DOCCS. The general population is allowed to use state-issued handkerchiefs as maks. 

But criminal justice advocates don't believe enough is being done to address the pandemic in New York prisons. They are repeating calls for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to use his authority and grant clemency to older inmates or those with compromised immune systems. 

When asked Saturday if he is planning to take any further action to protect inmates from the virus, Cuomo responded, "Not anything new, no." 

In a joint statement, the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign and Parole Preparation Project urged Cuomo to grant clemency "before it's too late." 

"Every day, the number of people in prison who test positive for the virus climbs higher," the groups said. "More people are dying and thousands of incarcerated older people and others with compromised immune systems are at serious risk of death by this virus if the governor doesn't take swift and immediate action." 

There are also concerns among employees about the spread of the virus. The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association asked DOCCS to suspend visitation, end non-essential inmate transportation and provide staff with hand sanitizer. 

DOCCS, according to its website, obliged. A ban on visitation was extended through April 29. Non-essential inmate transfers have been suspended. Hand sanitizer has been provided for use by incarcerated individuals and staff. The agency took several other actions, including allowing correction officers and civilian staff to wear masks. 

Jim Miller, a spokesman for NYSCOPBA, said Monday that the union purchased surgical-type masks for their members in DOCCS and the state Office of Mental Health. DOCCS is also providing masks to employees to wear while they're on duty. 

"Like all frontline personnel in this pandemic, the health and safety of the member is paramount and will continue to be," Miller said. 

Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at

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