ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Governor Cuomo and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced February 4 a plan was in the works to begin vaccinating the state’s prison population. Since then, the latest update from DOCCS reports around 4,500 shots have gone out to prison staff and residents.

However, around 5,600 incarcerated New Yorkers have tested positive since the start of the pandemic, and several outbreaks continue to spread, including those at Franklin, Orleans, as well as the previous spikes at Greene Correctional Facility in October and November.

“It is impossible to social distance. We sleep within two to three feet of each other. We have to wear the same mask for days, and when we ask a guard for a new one, we are told, sorry, we don’t have enough,” says Tim Reed, who is currently incarcerated at Franklin Correctional Facility.

“We are people. We are husbands, we are fathers, we’re sons, we’re friends, but we haven’t been treated that way,” Reed goes on to say.

Thursday, advocacy groups and more than a dozen New York senators and assembly members joined a call to describe what each saw during surprise visits to multiple prisons across the state, including Fishkill, Queensboro, Green Haven, Orleans, Bedford, Taconic, Auburn, Otisville, and also Orange County Jail, which serves as an ICE facility.

“We witnessed cruelty, we witnessed harmful practices, but what’s important to know is that we actually didn’t witness anything unlawful,” says Senator Julia Salazar, who also chairs the NYS Committee on Crime and Correction.

“That shows you that the system is flawed, so we must be intentional about changing the laws,” Assemblyman Demond Meeks says.

Several lawmakers voiced that among their major concerns were conditions in the Specialized Housing Units — the solitary confinement cells also known as S.H.U. Legislators claim they saw patients in need of isolation sent to solitary when space ran out.

“Here you are already dealing with health matters, and the best thing they can do for you is place you in the S.H.U. and have you in this confinement for 23 hours out of the day,” says Meeks.

These leaders are working to pass what they call the “Justice Roadmap” — a list of bills which address elder parole for those at risk of catching COVID, fair and timely parole reviews, and the HALT Solitary Confinement Act to completely replace solitary with humane alternatives.

“I firmly believe that making a mistake in your life, as serious as it may be, it’s no excuse to take away a person’s humanity,” says Senator Jessica Ramos.

A response from the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision includes the following:

We cannot comment on pending legislation.

DOCCS began vaccinating staff and  incarcerated individuals 65 years or older, on Friday, February 5. To date, over 4,500 vaccinations have been administered. Vaccination efforts are continuing this week.

Every facet of the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been guided by facts, scientific data, and the guidance of public health experts at NYS DOH and the CDC, and the work of DOCCS to protect the safety of New York’s incarcerated population is no different.

Each facility has identified appropriate locations for isolation and quarantine use. Some facilities have converted a number of Special Housing Units (SHU) cells in order to give those under isolation their own cell. These individuals remain under the rules and regulations of general population and not SHU regulations. Individuals under isolation are also given their own property, as well as two tablets: one that can be used to make telephone calls, and the other for access to law library materials.

Additional Background: Community spread continues to be a driving factor behind the spread of COVID-19, and just as the entire state had seen an uptick in cases throughout the holidays, New York’s correctional facilities have experienced this same trend. While the number of cases at the majority of facilities are beginning to go down, we continue to manage cases in accordance with CDC and DOH protocols.

The first steps are the same whether the individual is in prison or not – isolate those who are COVID-positive, trace their contacts, and quarantine anyone who was exposed. Almost all of the positives we’re seeing in prisons are asymptomatic — and we are taking immediate actions to protect the health and safety of incarcerated individuals and staff. DOCCS, in consultation with DOH, has developed a statewide asymptomatic surveillance program that is testing random populations in every facility on a daily basis.

In facilities that have had spikes of cases, DOCCS has deployed rapid testing for staff. In addition, the Department has implemented a regular, voluntary staff testing program at each of its facilities statewide. Intake of state-ready individuals from county jails has been temporarily suspended, and movement within the system has been slowed as well.

Also, visitation has been temporarily suspended at all DOCCS facilities until further notice.

DOCCS has completed targeted testing of the entire incarcerated population in the state’s correctional facilities while continuing to follow science-based protocols established at the beginning of the pandemic. As of February 4, 2021, there have been 65,004 inmates tested with 58,268 negative cases, 5,697 positive cases (with 5,193 of those recovered), and 1,039 tests pending results.

Emergency control plans are in place at each facility and regularly reviewed. Each plan is uniquely designed to meet that facility’s needs. These plans include preparedness measures, response mechanisms, and short- and long-term recovery provisions. The Department has plans for each facility to implement to deal with significant staff absences.

Staff are screened daily for temperature; symptoms; contacts with a COVID-19 case; recent positive tests; and travel to a state with significant community spread that requires a 14-day quarantine. Staff also continue to be provided with sufficient PPE, as they are mandated to wear a mask while on duty.

DOCCS staff and incarcerated individuals are required to wear mask.  While we have widespread compliance, if necessary, DOCCS would use progressive discipline to address non-compliance.

To reinforce policies and protocols during this health crisis, DOCCS’ Office of Special investigations (OSI) has been performing compliance monitoring at DOCCS Bureaus and facilities as well as Bureau and Facility executive team members who are working and walking through the locations every day. There are progressive disciplinary steps for mask non-compliance, however, our monitoring of mask wearing shows compliance is high.

All incarcerated individuals have been issued over a dozen reusable masks throughout the course of the pandemic, with the latest shipment sent to facilities the week of February 8, 2021. Those subject to isolation or quarantine are supplied with surgical-type masks. Any incarcerated individual in need of a mask is provided with one.

To put all of this in context, as the virus has continued to spread across the nation and in communities within the state, DOCCS has managed to limit its impact with relative success when judged against its peers, as New York State has a lower prison infection rate per capita than 45 other states.

A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons | The Marshall Project

As of February 18, 2021, the total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is 32,822. This represents both a total reduction in excess of 11,300 individuals since January 1st of 2020 and the lowest total incarcerated population in New York State prisons since 1984. That is a 54% decline in population since the Department’s high of 72,773 in 1999.

Due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Department has implemented early release opportunities for individuals based on thorough individualized reviews that ensure each person is connected to the services and support that they need to succeed in the community, such as housing and health care.

As of February 17, 2021 the actions listed above have resulted in the early release of 3,728 individuals, including:

• 791 individuals who have had their low-level parole violations cancelled;

·         Low level was defined as no violent behavior, no possession of firearm or weapon, not a sex offender who had prohibitive contact with minor or victim and not a domestic violence offender who had prohibitive contact with a victim;

• 2,925 individuals who were committed on non-violent, non-sex offenses and were within 90 days of their approved release date; and

• 12 women who were pregnant or postpartum, committed on non-violent, non-sex offenses, and were within 180 days of their approved release date.

DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey