Group: New York needs to step up prison testing for COVID

WWNY Group: New York needs to step up prison testing for COVID

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - New York state only tested 27 of the thousands of prisoners in the state prison system over the last week for COVID-19, according to a group that supports criminal justice reform.

New Yorkers United For Justice (NYUJ) says the tiny number of tests is a “blind spot” in the state’s coronavirus strategy.

“Everywhere else and in every other aspect of our shared civic life, we are encouraging people to get tested, to know their status with respect to COVID and to take precautions to protect not only themselves but their families and their communities,” Alexander Horwitz, the group’s executive director said Wednesday.

“How can we have a blind spot in a setting like a prison where we know that medical care is generally inadaquate, where we know that sanitation is difficult to maintain and where you have people in cells right next to each other making it impossible to social distance?”

“We don’t know how many COVID cases are in our prison system. That’s exactly what makes this so dangerous,” he said.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, (DOCCS), which oversees the prison system, says on its web site that “incarcerated individuals are tested when exhibiting symptoms and after a medical evaluation is conducted.”

“Our process identifies patients who are ill and require special monitoring and care and isolates those who create the greatest risk of transmission to others,” the web site reads.

Not good enough, says Horwitz from New Yorkers United For Justice.

“We’re asking for everyone in prison to be tested by the state. The state has the capacity, it has the ability. What’s missing, for some reason, is the will. We can’t afford that,” he said. Other states, including New Jersey, have tested all prisoners, he said.

And he argued that even if you don’t care about prisoners, you should care about the people who work behind bars - corrections officers and other staff - and “who may be returning home at the end of the night to a spouse who is immunocompromised or elderly parents.”

NYUJ’s call for more testing comes as the prison population in the north country continues to decline.

There are 900 fewer prisoners in the five north country prisons in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties now, as compared to the end of 2018. None of the prisons has reported a case of COVID-19.

Horwitz said fewer prisoners is good when it comes to COVID; it makes managing the virus easier. But he questioned what plan the state has for handling the illness, both in prison and in the court system.

“It is a legitimate concern that if you’re not testing in prisons, and you aren’t testing in courts, then you are creating a pipeline back and forth between these two systems that can spread COVID further,” he said.

A letter from an inmate at Cape Vincent Correctional Facility to 7 News generally backed what the NYUJ group is saying.

The inmate wrote that no testing of inmates takes place, and that the only testing of corrections officers and staff is temperature checks.

According to state records, 34 people have been checked at Cape Vincent since the pandemic began. Cape Vincent currently has 557 prisoners.

The Department of Corrections said Wednesday that it “continues to evaluate all options for additional testing in response to this public health crisis.”

It said it already tests prisoners:

- With COVID symptoms

- Quarantined through contact tracing

- Who have chronic illnesses

- Are 55 or older

- Are pregnant

DOCCS also said its testing of prisoners ages 55 and older led it to test everyone in four Hudson Valley facilties, with more than 3,100 tests given.

“From the outset of this global health crisis, DOCCS has taken swift action, guided by facts and the recommendations of the New York State Department of Health and the CDC, to stop the spread of COVID-19 among staff and incarcerated individuals,” the agency said in a statement.

“In heeding the evolving guidance of public health experts, DOCCS staff and incarcerated individuals continue to effectively limit and slow the progression of this virus within New York State correctional facilities.”

Copyright 2020 WWNY. All rights reserved.