As Gov. Andrew Cuomo encourages New Yorkers to get tested for coronavirus, state prisons are acting with seemingly less urgency: 91 prisoners were tested over the first two weeks of June.
That brings the total number of prisoners tested over the course of the pandemic statewide to 1,300 as of June 13 — about 3% of the 38,000 state prison population. Some 518 people have tested positive.
Watchdogs say the testing numbers raise the question of whether the positive cases that the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has reported represent the full scale of infection in the prisons.
“I fear that they’re not testing enough, because I think if they tested more then we would find more cases, certainly, and I think that’s been true all along,” said Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association prison oversight group.
DOCCS rejects the concern. A spokesperson for state prisons wrote that the prisons had avoided a major outbreak and that the numbers show a success story.
Experts say congregate facilities such as jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. Still, the state prisons system’s coronavirus re-opening plan does not include widespread testing of current inmates.
A Call for More Testing
Some prisons and jails where more people have been tested have been identified as major coronavirus clusters. The five biggest clusters in the country on a list compiled by The New York Times are in jails and prisons in Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and California. Each of those facilities reported more than 1,000 positive cases.
The New York prison ranking highest on that list is Fishkill Correctional Facility, where five prisoners have died of the virus, according to DOCCS. The agency reports 86 positive cases there out of 182 individuals tested.
In total, 16 prisoners and five prison staff in have died from ‘COVID-19 confirmed deaths.’
“Makes you think they should be testing more people,” said State Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Queens), chair of the Assembly Committee of Correction. “I think anybody that wants to be tested should be able to be tested.”
The Correction Department says it performs blanket testing on certain specific populations: those housed in its five Regional Medical Units, all pregnant and postpartum prisoners, and all people living in the senior dorm at the Ulster Correctional Facility.
In total, 16 prisoners and five prison staff in New York state have died from “COVID-19 confirmed deaths,” according to DOCCS.
Prisoner Releases Pushed
One prisoner who died, Juan Mosquero, was not tested for the virus before his death from COVID-19 in the infirmary at Sing Sing in April, which was first reported by the Huffington Post.
Another man, Leonard Carter, who was held in Queensboro Correctional Facility, died from the coronavirus just weeks before his release date, the New York Daily News reported.
These deaths and fears from prisoners and their loved ones have fueled calls for wider releases of prisoners from advocates.
Meanwhile, DOCCS has also scrambled to fill vacant medical posts — from nurses to doctors to physician assistants.
DOCCS says it has freed 1,046 people in response to COVID-19 and anticipates hundreds more releases in coming weeks.
“I think that the reason that they’re not conducting mass tests is because they don’t want to know how many people are actually infected with this virus,” said Jose Saldana, director of the group Release Aging People in Prison.
The organization, he noted, has heard from incarcerated people who are not able to access testing, even when they believe they might have the virus.
‘They weren’t sentenced to die in prison.’
Some younger people might “rough it out” in their cells, Saldana said. But older people can’t take that risk, he said, which is why his organization has pleaded with the governor to grant them clemency.
“Some men and women who are in their seventies or even late sixties who have serious underlying medical conditions — I mean, all the experts have warned us that this virus is deadly to them,” Saldana said.
“They weren’t sentenced to die in prison. They have done the vast majority of their time, they’re very elderly, they pose no risk to public safety, and it’s a benefit to their family to have their grandfathers and grandmothers home.”