NY to provide masks for COs, quarantined inmates

Officers will be permitted to wear either the N95 respirator mask or surgical-type mask in prisons

By Robert Gavin
Times Union

ALBANY, N.Y. — Facing mounting pressure, state prison officials on Wednesday said they will allow corrections officers, parole officers and prison workers to wear masks on duty to protect themselves from the threat of the global coronavirus pandemic.

And to reduce the risk of secondary transmission of COVID-19, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision also will allow inmates subject to quarantine to wear surgical-type masks, prison officials said.

DOCCS' decision followed health concerns aired by union representatives of DOCCS' employees and their families.

“After thorough internal review and in order to continue to protect staff and the incarcerated population from COVID-19 entering or leaving our facilities, effective immediately, staff will be permitted to wear either an N95 respirator or a surgical-type mask while on duty inside of the correctional facility,” a DOCCS spokesperson told the Times Union on Wednesday.

The DOCCS spokesperson said the agency will not oppose use of the masks — known as personal protective devices —  if "there is a chance that they may slow or even stop the spread of this virus from entering our facilities."

Officers will be permitted to wear either the N95 respirator mask or surgical-type mask in prisons, said James Miller, a spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, or NYSCOPBA, which represents corrections officers. Underscoring the problem, NYSCOPBA's president, Michael B. Powers, announced earlier this week that he — and 55 other corrections officers — have tested positive for COVID-19.

"NYSCOPBA lobbied the administration last month with repeated requests to provide officers PPEs or be allowed to provide their own. We are satisfied that they finally recognized the importance that all front-line personnel need to protect themselves during this crisis," Miller said.

He said the union was committed to working with the state to promote safe conditions and is in the process of purchasing PPEs for its membership.

Wayne Spence, president of the Public Employees Federation (PEF), which also represents state employees at DOCCS facilities, said in a statement that  "after weeks of requesting, and a lengthy discussion with the governor’s staff late last evening," he was pleased to announce that DOCCS was allowing employees to wear the masks in prisons.

The wife of a state corrections officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said she was pleased — to an extent.

"I think it’s a step in the right direction. I feel that they should attempt to locate masks for everyone inside," the woman told the Times Union. "I’m fully aware that it’s not an easy feat right now, collecting supplies. But, with that being said, the state at least attempting to do so would make it seem as if they actually are attempting to keep prisons safe, not just saying 'fine bring your own if you can.' While it’s a step, it’s a small one."

On Tuesday, she had been concerned that the prison system was "very reactive" as opposed to proactive adding, "This is not a disease that you can be reactive with.”

She had said if prison officials could not protect inmates from the potentially deadly coronavirus, they could not protect officers such as her husband.

“This virus doesn't  just attack people in blue. It attacks people in orange as well,” she said.


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