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NY prisons lag behind other states in COVID-19 testing, advocates say

NY prisons lag behind other states in COVID-19 testing, advocates say

From the The Citizen's coverage of COVID-19 in NY state prisons series
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The Cayuga County Health Department announced Sunday that an inmate who was previously housed at Auburn Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID-19. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees New York's 52 prisons, said Monday that the inmate was transferred from Auburn to Wende Correctional Facility near Buffalo.

Armed with data that shows New York's COVID-19 testing in prisons trails other states, advocates are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to conduct more testing in the state's 52 correctional facilities. 

According to the latest data released by DOCCS, 5,812 incarcerated individuals have been tested in New York — 15.1% of the total prison population. By comparison, 29% of New York residents have been tested for COVID-19. 

Other states have tested the incarcerated population at much higher rates. Florida, which has approximately 94,000 inmates, has performed 43,272 tests — nearly half of the prison population. California, which has more than 101,000 inmates, has performed 65,818 tests. 

Statewide, New York performed an average of 66,048 COVID-19 tests over a seven-day period — enough to test every incarcerated individual and correction officer in a single day. There are 38,390 inmates and 19,100 correction officers, sergeants and lieutenants in New York prisons, according to DOCCS. 

Khalil Cumberbatch, chief strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice, said the lack of COVID-19 testing in state prisons is New York's biggest oversight. 

"The state has committed to testing millions, and that commitment needs to be extended to everyone behind prison walls," Cumberbatch said. 

DOCCS recently completed COVID-19 testing of all inmates ages 55 and older. The testing of 3,922 older inmates found 77 new positive cases, a 1.9% positivity rate. Cumberbatch called the increased testing "a step in the right direction," but added that it should've been done sooner and should be part of a broader plan to conduct large-scale testing in prisons. 

Sources have told The Citizen that there are plans to test every inmate at Fishkill Correctional Facility, the prison that's reported the most COVID-19 cases in New York. DOCCS said it's consulting with the state Department of Health and "continues to evaluate all options of further testing and anticipates doing additional targeted testing." 

DOCCS' latest COVID-19 report indicates that 604 inmates in 27 state prisons tested positive for COVID-19. Most of the inmates (537) have recovered. There have been 17 deaths reported. 

The advocates' concern isn't limited to the incarcerated population. DOCCS says 1,308 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Five staff members have died, according to the department. 

While there is facility-level data for inmates, DOCCS isn't releasing that information for employees due to security concerns. 

Cumberbatch noted that employees and inmates are susceptible to COVID-19 because of their living situation and work environment. Prisons are confined settings, which makes it difficult to maintain social distancing. DOCCS is allowing employees and inmates to wear face coverings and has a strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But New Yorkers United for Justice believes more should be done, especially as the state's regional reopening process continues. 

"Failure to accurately assess the spread of COVID in prisons across the state puts every New Yorker at risk as we reopen and prepare for the fall season," Cumberbatch 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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