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State Prison COVID-19 Wave Grows as Inmates Wait for Vaccines

Prison reform advocates laid flowers for the dead outside Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Jan. 10, 2020.
Prison reform advocates laid flowers for the dead outside Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Jan. 10, 2020.
Courtesy of Jolene Russ

Hundreds of state prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 this month, data shows, intensifying calls for vaccinations and early releases of inmates.

One mother whose son is ailing in an upstate lockup said she was “hurt” — but not surprised — to learn he recently tested positive.

“I knew this was bound to happen,” she said. “I didn’t think [he] would be able to save himself from it.”

More than 900 of the 34,000 people incarcerated in state-run prisons currently have COVID-19, with 283 people testing positive between Monday and Thursday alone, according to state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision data.

Between Jan. 4 and Jan. 14, five prisoners died of the virus while 750 newly tested positive. That lines up with a five-day moving average of 75 daily — a huge jump from the average of around 10 a day recorded in early December, before a holiday season spike.

But while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages prison officials to “vaccinate staff and incarcerated/detained persons of correctional or detention facilities at the same time because of their shared increased risk of disease,” the inmate population is not among those Gov. Andrew Cuomo has listed as eligible.

The state correction department said in a statement that staff can sign up for the vaccine, but that the agency “is still working” with the state Department of Health to “develop a plan” for the incarcerated population.

Since the start of the pandemic, 3,835 state corrections staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 and seven have died of it, according to the corrections department.

‘Cruel and Irresponsible’

Advocates, including The Legal Aid Society and Chelsea Clinton, are calling on Cuomo to promptly vaccinate inmates as well as prison staff.

“Governor Cuomo’s refusal to authorize vaccination of New Yorkers who live in the congregate settings of prisons and jails extends racist policies of incarceration to racist policies of vaccination,” Stefen Short, supervising attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “It defies the advice of all public health experts, and is cruel and irresponsible.”

Meanwhile, state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda (D-The Bronx), the chair of the Senate committee that oversees state prisons and can press state officials on conditions there, was removed from the position Tuesday after his own arrest on a domestic violence charge.

In prison, areas from showers to bathrooms to dining tables and sleeping quarters are frequently shared. Like residents of nursing homes and homeless shelters, prisoners are especially vulnerable to rapid spread of coronavirus, experts say.

The mother of the inmate with COVID-19 said there was no way for her son to avoid the virus in a prison bunk.

“I’ve saved myself, but I’ve isolated myself and I have that right,” said the mother, who asked that THE CITY withhold her and her son’s names. “[He] don’t have that right, right now, for his situation.”

‘A Death Sentence in Prison’

When the coronavirus first took hold last spring, New York State did not implement widespread testing in prisons for months. The prison system has since ramped up testing of inmates and also started a “regular, voluntary” staff testing program at each of its facilities, according to DOCCS

But the rise in testing of the incarcerated population does not account for the swell of new cases in recent weeks.

Of the new tests that came back in December and early January, roughly 13% — of about 14,000 — were positive. By way of comparison, on Nov. 30, 5% roughly 36,000 total tests that had come back since the beginning of the pandemic were positive.

Between Dec. 24 and 28, the cumulative number of positive cases rose 10%. Since the onset last spring through mid-December, 18 prisoners died while positive for the virus, according to state statistics. Some 11 more have died since.

Family and advocates are pinning their hopes on the prospect of Albany leaders ordering early releases for some inmates.

Possibilities include a state bill that would allow for elderly prisoners to appear before the parole board, and executive clemencies from Cuomo for people with less than a year left on their sentences.

“I’m praying that they look over inmates’ cases right now and let these inmates out who are not a threat to society, and keep them somewhere else, on the outside,” said the recently diagnosed man’s brother, a member of the Center for Community Alternatives. “They’re making people right now have like a death sentence in prison.”

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