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New York Prisons Scramble to Fill Medical Jobs as COVID Cases Rise

 Ben Franklin Smalls, 73, was moved from Green Haven Correctional Facility to a hospital after he was diagnosed with coronavirus.
Ben Franklin Smalls, 73, was moved from Green Haven Correctional Facility to a hospital after he was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Photo: Courtesy of Smalls Family

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The Cuomo administration insists it has enough medical staff for the state prison system, even as it seeks to recruit more than 300 workers to treat inmates during the pandemic.

Nearly one-quarter of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s medical positions are vacant, according to department spokesperson Thomas Mailey. That represents approximately 315 open slots that prison sources said cover everything from nurses to doctors to physician assistants.

The staffing shortage comes as 10 prisoners have died from COVID-19 and another 370 have recorded confirmed cases as of April 30, according to DOCCS.

Corrections staff has also been hit hard by the virus, with 1,045 with confirmed cases, records show. It is unclear how many of those are medical personnel because the department doesn’t break down COVID-19 casualties by title.

About 1,000 union medical staffers, and a few contract workers, currently care for close to 40,000 prisoners.

The state has asked nurses from its Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Office of Mental Health to consider transferring to treat prisoners, according to the Public Employees Federation, which represents prison medical employees.

“They asked for volunteers,” said a union representative who requested anonymity because of not being authorized to talk to the press.

Mailey maintains the state currently has enough medical personnel to properly treat everyone, saying the department places prisoner and staff safety “above all else.”

The Office of Mental Health has long provided mental health care in prisons, he added, and said his department has not called upon the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities medical staff to help in correctional facilities.

Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Queens) speaks at a January 2020 press conference.
Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Queens)
Mike Wren/New York State Department of Health

State officials have long struggled to hire and retain medical professionals to work in the far-flung 52-prison system, according to reports.

“They are understaffed. There’s no question,” said Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Queens), chair of the Assembly Committee of Correction.

“There are doctors in facilities, but they are not there every day,” he added. “Some of them are only there twice a week.”

In some cases, one doctor is in charge of 500 prisoners, according to a 2018 Correctional Association of New York report.

Recruiting Challenges

“They are constantly trying to hire medical staff. They are having a very difficult time recruiting people to work in the facility,” said Jennifer Scaife, the executive director of the Correctional Association, a nonprofit that monitors state prisons.

Starting pay for licensed nurse practitioners is $38,875, dentists $105,355 and physicians $143,381. By contrast, those jobs pay up to $30,000 more in the private sector, according to ZipRecruiter.

“The competition for medical staffing, both in the public and private sectors, continues to become more and more challenging,” said Mailey.

He said the department has “put forth an aggressive recruiting campaign” that includes added pay for downstate facilities where the cost of living is more expensive.

To deal with the growing health crisis, the department has shifted medical personnel from facilities in the Capital Region to the Hudson Valley prisons with more COVID-19 cases, he added.

Approximately 20 nurses have accepted voluntary transfers to coronavirus hotspots, according to the Public Employees Federation.

Prisoners who seek medical treatment must be seen by a nurse within two and a half hours, according to department policy.

But some with more serious medical needs go days without being seen by a doctor or checked in a hospital, according to advocates and death review reports.

A Struggle for Breath

Juan Mosquero, 58, the first person in prison to die from COVID-19, was treated in the Sing Sing infirmary for 10 days, according to HuffPost, which first reported his death.

He struggled to breathe for days, but was just given an aspirin and denied further treatment, prisoners at the facility told the news site.

The department has declined to detail how Mosquero was treated, citing medical privacy laws. Prison officials are only testing about 20 prisoners a day, THE CITY reported earlier this month.

The Cuomo administration has identified 171 people who are both over age 50 and within 90 days of their planned release date as candidates to be sprung early. A total of 116 of them have so far been let go, according to Mailey.

As the virus spreads throughout the system, defense lawyers are desperately trying to help free their clients who have pre-existing medical conditions.

The Legal Aid Society is seeking the release of five clients with health problems, according to its latest legal filing.

“The Legal Aid Society has been litigating medical issues in DOCCS for decades,” said Stefen Short, a Legal Aid attorney. “We still receive reports daily from clients who have serious medical needs not getting care.”

The list includes John Frateschi, 72, who is incarcerated in Marcy Correctional Facility in Oneida County. Frateschi has severe asthma and recurring walking pneumonia, court papers say. He uses a wheelchair because he had been falling frequently, according to his wife, Julie.

The retired National Grid foreman has served three-quarters of his 12-year sentence for attempted robbery and burglary.

“I miss him terribly, I would love to get him home,” Julie Frateschi said. “He’d be in a safe environment. He’s got six grandchildren, they haven’t seen him in years.”

She added, “I’m just hoping that this isn’t a death sentence.”

‘Life and Death’

The families of those behind bars with COVID-19 wait by the phone each day for updates from prison staff.

That’s the case for Jhana DuPont, 42, whose father, Benjamin Franklin Smalls, 73, was moved from Green Haven Correctional Facility to Vassar Brothers Medical Center on April 10.

She didn’t hear from him until he was in the hospital for the first week he was there, DuPont contended. The hospital staff has insisted she speak to prison officials to get updates, she said.

“I’m a very laid-back person. I don’t get stressed,” she said. “But just knowing you can’t get info from a nurse doesn’t make any sense.”

Mailey said the hospital’s doctor has been in touch with her.

Smalls, who was convicted of kidnapping and burglary, is not eligible for parole until May 2031. The former Harlem restaurant owner and thousands of others are begging Gov. Andrew Cuomo for clemency.

Cuomo announced in 2016 that he’d take a more merciful approach to handling clemency requests. But he’s commuted the sentences of just two convicted criminals over the past year.

Ulysses Boyd, 64, filed his clemency application in May 2018.

Ulysees Boyd
Ulysses Boyd is seeking clemency after serving more than 30 years in prison for murder.
Screengrab/Snapdragon Films

Boyd, who has a host of medical ailments, was recently diagnosed with blood clots in his legs and tested positive for COVID-19, according to his lawyer, Steve Zeidman.

Boyd is serving a 50 years to life for the felony murder of Harold Bates during a drug dispute in a Harlem basement on April 26, 1986.

“At some point, the governor has to recognize that the situation in prison is about life and death,” said Zeidman. “I’m very worried. The blood clots are life threatening.”

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