Official: NY was 'too slow to respond' to COVID-19 spread in prisons

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik said the state didn't suspend inmate transfers quickly enough, a move correctional officers called for weeks ago

By Cara Chapman

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — New York State was too slow to respond to the issue of COVID-19 spreading in its prisons, argued North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik.

In a conference call with media Tuesday, Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) said the state did not suspend inmate transfers quickly enough — a move Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Plattsburgh), corrections officers and her office called for weeks ago — and advocated for further precautions to be implemented in the interest of prioritizing public health.


Those additional actions include issuing personal protective equipment (PPE) to correction officers and inmates as well as mitigating group activities that are part of the day-to-day life in prison systems, the congresswoman continued.

“You have to be implementing social distancing.”

Most important, she added, is ensuring coordination and communication between what is happening inside the prisons and what county public health offices are doing.

Stefanik said Franklin and Essex counties encountered issues on that front and that she, Jones and State Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) participated in a call about the issue Sunday.


The congresswoman shared that she has received calls from family members of COs who, because they believe they have been exposed and have a family member with a pre-existing condition, go home after a full day of work, sleep in their cars and go back to work again.

“This is unacceptable and the information needs to be much more open from the state level in terms of what they’re doing.

But we really have to make sure that the COs have the confidence in that they’re being given the information that they need.”

The same goes for inmates, Stefanik said.

“When we talk about the protection of public health for the corrections officers, this is also ensuring that there’s not transmission of the virus to the inmates as well.”


According to the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 123 of its approximately 29,000 employees; 14 of about 43,000 incarcerated individuals; and nine parolees out of more than 35,000 under supervision had confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning.

“With each confirmed case, DOCCS works with the Department of Health to identify any potentially exposed individuals to provide notifications and to stop the spread of the virus.”

Last week, the Clinton County Health Department reported and DOCCS confirmed that one inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility had tested positive for COVID-19.

DOCCS did not say whether the number of confirmed inmates at the Dannemora remains at one.

“For security reasons, DOCCS is not disclosing information on the facilities where those impacted work, or are incarcerated or hospitalized.”

A Franklin Correctional Facility corrections officer also tested positive, according to the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association.

DOCCS said it continues to evaluate all options “in response to this public health crisis while preserving public safety.”

“At this time, and in accordance with both the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and New York State Department of Health, each facility provides personal protective equipment when medically necessary,” the department said.

COs can and do wear masks when it is appropriate; masks are not allowed unless medically necessary for the job and area they work in, DOCCS continued.

“When worn for a legitimate medical reason, the masks must be accounted for and disposed of properly.”


The Federal Bureau of Prisons also needs to respond quickly, Stefanik said, and take into account where they are located when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even though you’re in a federal prison, if you’re in New York, you’re in a different situation than you are in a state that maybe hasn’t been hit with as high of numbers as New York State has been.

The expectation is we need action immediately.”

The union that represents FCI Ray Brook staff, Local American Federation of Government Employees Chapter 3882, said last week that a staff member there had tested positive.


Asked about what the Phase 4 relief legislation might look like, Stefanik said the current priority is making sure Phase 3 — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act — is working effectively.

She named specifically getting out the direct cash payments to individuals and families as well as monitoring incoming applications for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which will be available Thursday and Friday.

When Congress gets to Phase 4 discussions, Stefanik anticipates that the numbers of positive cases and people who are hospitalized will drive the legislation’s timeline and what is included.

“It also will be a question of when are people able to go back, somewhat, to work.”

For those interested, there are a lot of ways to help, Stefanik said.

She suggested calling offices of the aging, who are always looking for volunteers; buying small gift certificates or ordering takeout from local businesses; supporting local news outlets; or, if you’re a mental health expert, volunteering to help people cope with anxiety and stress.


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