COVID-19 outbreak at Wyoming County prison could be harbinger of more to come
As COVID-19 cases continue to shoot upward across New York, the inmates and workers at state prisons are again worried about keeping the virus under control behind prison walls.
The medium-security Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica provides a snapshot of what the prisons could face in coming weeks.
Testing at the prison in October returned no positive cases out of 985 tested. But, according to corrections officials, an inmate this month displayed mild symptoms and tested positive. Through contact tracing, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, conducted 125 tests and found 45 inmates to be positive.
One has since recovered, and most of the other cases are asymptomatic. None of the inmates are at outside hospitals.
Jesse Johnston, a former state prison inmate who has friends at the prison, said, "Everybody there is nervous and worried that nobody will help them."
Katie Schaffer, the director of advocacy and organizing for Center for Community Alternatives, Inc., said the prison population is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
"People incarcerated in state prison are proportionately older and more immuno-compromised," she said.
About the Wyoming Correctional Facility, she said, "These 45 cases are all new. We expect to see many more."
Already DOCCS has suspended visitation at two prisons — the Greene and Elmira Correctional Facilities — because of COVID-19 increases there. Elmira has had 602 positive cases as of Nov. 13, more than a third of the cases in the entire state prison system. Most of those inmates have recovered, DOCCS records show.
Eighteen inmates have died across the state system.
Visits to prisons were suspended from March until early August.
Former inmate Johnston said the prisoners who are found to be COVID-19 positive suffer the same isolation as prisoners placed into solitary confinement. "They're being locked away because they're sick," he said. "That's beyond inhumane."
Corrections officials say inmates stricken with the coronavirus are isolated and quarantined and not allowed visits. But the prisoners still receive necessary medical attention and will be taken to outside hospitals if warranted, officials say.
The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, which represents corrections officers, has called for a suspension of visits to inmates. Those visitations could lead to COVID-19 infections, endangering staff, the union says.
While the union points to the risks of inmate visits, prisoner advocates maintain that corrections officers are not being safe inside the prisons.
Prison staff are required to stay masked, but Schaffer said there are often reports of corrections officers ignoring the mandate. The union maintains that the staff are following mandated safety protocols.
Schaffer's organization is pushing to reduce incarceration numbers, and wants Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take steps to get particularly vulnerable inmates out of the prisons.
The advocates would like Cuomo to allow for immuno-compromised inmates near the end of their sentences to be released early. They also have sought changes that would allow inmates who have served 15 years and are 55 years or older to have the opportunity of parole.
The state is taking steps that balance inmate health and public safety, corrections officials say.
More than 3,100 inmates have been released early because of coronavirus concerns, including 791 with low-level parole violations, 2,324 who were convicted of non-violent or non-sex related offenses and were within 90 days of release, and 12 women who were pregnant or post-partum.
The state prison population as of Tuesday was 35,603 inmates, the lowest number since 1986.
Contact Gary Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 585-258-2479. Follow him on Twitter at gcraig1.