Correctional officers call for new COVID rules in state prisons

Michael B. Powers, Ogdensburg city councilor and union president of the state Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, stands outside his Ogdensburg home in April, having fully recovered from COVID-19. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

ALBANY — The union representing state correctional officers is calling for a system-wide suspension of visitation, increased spacing of inmates and limited inmate transport to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons.

In a Wednesday plea directed to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Michael B. Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, said “immediate steps” are necessary to curb spread among prison employees and the state’s incarcerated population.

“The state needs to act now, system-wide, before it’s too late,” Mr. Powers said.

An Ogdensburg resident and city councilor, Mr. Powers tested positive for the novel coronavirus in March, and for more than two weeks he fought sporadic coughing fits, chest tightness and fevers spiking at nearly 107 degrees. He maintained constant communication with his physician and was hospitalized in April.

“Fortunately for me, as I knock on wood, it worked out,” Mr. Powers told the Times this spring. “At least for now.”

With health protocols becoming routine during spring and summer peaks of the ongoing pandemic, limited visitation at state prisons resumed in August, after a nearly five-month suspension.

In his message to state officials this week, Mr. Powers referenced September and October surges in COVID-19 cases at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, Greene County, and Elmira Correctional Facility west of Binghamton in Chemung County. He noted that closing the two prisons to visitors, suspending nonessential transports and implementing social distancing and rapid testing for staff is reflecting a decline in cases.

DOCCS suspended visitation and inmate transfers at Greene and Elmira starting Oct. 21, and as of Oct. 30, the department modified procedures for all facilities to no longer allow “a brief embrace” as visits begin and end.

NYSCOPBA has continued to push for increased protective equipment and measures over the last 10 months, and is now requesting the uniform visit and transport suspensions and a uniform reorganization of inmates in alternating dormitory cubicles.

Across all state facilities, five staff members, 18 inmates and four parolees have died of COVID-19 or complications related to the disease since the outset of the pandemic.

The Elmira facility has reported a total of 605 inmate cases, with eight active as of Monday, according to DOCCS data. Greene has reported 161 inmate cases, all having recovered. In early October, as many as 91 cases were active at Greene.

“For security reasons,” DOCCS has declined to disclose staff case data by facility.

To date, DOCCS reports two inmates each at Gouverneur and Adirondack correctional facilities have been confirmed positive, and 26 positives have been logged at Clinton Correctional Facility. No inmate cases have been confirmed at Ogdensburg, Riverview, Cape Vincent, Bare Hill or Watertown state facilities as of Monday.

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