Coronavirus in state prisons: advocacy groups want more testing and transparency

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FILE – This Aug. 10, 2019, shows razor wire fencing at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. Inmates and advocates said numerous inmates exhibiting flu-like symptoms were not tested or quarantined at several facilities, including at FCI Yazoo City in Mississippi and at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10)- Criminal justice experts are asking New York for more transparency in the reporting of COVID-19 in state prisons. They also say the ratio of staff to inmates who have been diagnosed with the virus is not representative of how the virus is acting in other state prisons.

The Department of Corrections and Community Service says a small fraction of N.Y. prison inmates have been diagnosed with COVID-19, 434 while the number of staff who tested positive is 1,177 as of May 10.

Vice President of Policy at Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a non-partisan criminal justice advocacy organization, Molly Gill, says the fact that more prison staff than inmates have tested positive indicates a strong need for increased testing. She uses Texas and North Carolina as examples where large scale testing of inmates has occurred.

In Raleigh, North Carolina testing was done at North Carolina Correctional Institute for women. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety found after testing 161 inmates in a housing unit, 70 were positive for COVID-19. They say the majority were asymptomatic.

In Texas, after widespread testing, the number of inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 was significantly more than the number of staff who tested positive. The confined spaces in prisons would allow the virus to spread similar to that of a nursing home. Gill says from that standpoint the numbers DOCCS is reporting don’t add up. She says if Governor Andrew Cuomo is serious about reopening the state, widespread testing in prisons is needed to protect the community.

Based on the limited data available, DOCCS’s positive rate for incarcerated people is at least 66 percent. A positive rate more than six times WHO’s recommended maximum means DOCCS is not testing sufficiently to capture the extent of the spread of the virus inside prisons. This puts the lives and health of incarcerated people, corrections professionals, and prison vendors at unnecessary risk, and hinders efforts to perform contact tracing and quarantine those who could infect others throughout the communities in which they live and work. New York is lagging far behind states such as Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Michigan in testing its prison population. As the epicenter of this global pandemic, New York should be leading the nation on in-prison testing.

New Yorkers United for Justice

“We started about a month ago reaching out to various corrections departments around the country, looking their testing data and their infection rate data and asking for greater transparency about who was being tested and what the positive rates are…we started noticing that the infection rates among prisoners was very, very high, according to World Health Organization(WHO) standards,” says Gill.

WHO recommends greater testing in populations with a 10% or higher infection rate. Gill says the infection rate is more than 60% in N.Y. indicating the need for more tests to be administered in state prisons. In a letter to government officials, including Governor Cuomo, 12 criminal justice advocacy groups including FAMM, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People urged the state to take more action.

Although not part of the N.Y. prison system, News10 ABC reached out to Albany and Rensselaer counties asking about COVID-19 among inmates in both county jails. Sheriff Craig Apple says neither any staff or inmates have tested positive for the virus. He says an agency nurse came to the facility with the virus but was sent out. A representative for Rensselaer County says there have been no cases at Rensselaer County Jail either.


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