Cases of the novel coronavirus have increased in some state prisons, and the union representing security personnel wants visits suspended at these facilities until the numbers come down.
Michael B. Powers of Ogdensburg, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, issued a news release Wednesday calling on authorities to take action. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision halted visits for several months starting in March after the pandemic began.
“NYSCOPBA is calling for the immediate suspension of inmate visitation at correctional facilities that have seen a recent uptick in positive [coronavirus] cases among in the inmate population,” according to the news release. “Recently, Elmira Correctional Facility saw an uptick in both staff and inmate positive tests, with more than 30 positive cases and more than 120 individuals under quarantine. At Greene Correctional Facility, more than 70 inmates have tested positive in the last two weeks and there are close to 300 tests pending. More facilities are on the brink.
“Experts predicted a new wave of COVID-19 this fall, and that prediction is coming to fruition. [Coronavirus] cases are on the rise in the U.S. over the past seven days. Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo unveiled new lockdown measures for recent ‘micro-clusters’ in and around the New York City area that are surging, and similar lockdown measures should be applied to state prisons where the coronavirus is surging. Visitation should be immediately suspended at hotspot facilities, and DOCCS should require anyone who visits an incarcerated inmate provide proof of a negative [coronavirus] test within the last 14 days. Nursing homes across the state have had serious restrictions placed on them when it pertains to family visitation. Should similar standards be put in place at state prisons for those wishing to visit convicted felons? Staff should expect no less protections from our governor and DOCCS.”
Mr. Powers’s call for greater restrictions when it comes to visitations in state prisons is essential. It’s long been known that prisons are incubators for coronavirus outbreaks.
“Current DOCCS visitation guidelines require visitors to be screened for temperature, symptoms and travel history, and visiting room capacity is cut in half. Several additional visitation protocols are outlined in the department’s updated reopening plan, viewable online,” according to a story published Thursday by the Watertown Daily Times. “Across all state facilities, five staff members, 17 inmates and four parolees have died of COVID-19 or complications related to the disease since the outset of the pandemic. To date, DOCCS reports two inmates each at Gouverneur and Adirondack correctional facilities have been confirmed positive, and one positive has been logged at Clinton Correctional Facility. No staff or inmate cases have been confirmed at Ogdensburg, Riverview, Cape Vincent or Watertown state facilities.”
This issue is a personal one for Mr. Powers, who serves as a member of the Ogdensburg City Council as well as a sergeant correctional officer. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March and went through a horrible ordeal. His temperature rose above 105 degrees, but luckily he got through it all.
Inmates will always need to have access to their lawyers, and this accommodation was made when visits were previously suspended. Obviously, such an arrangement must continue with any new limitations. We also urge officials to allow visits by mental health and substance abuse professionals who offer vital services to inmates.
But NYSCOPBA’s stance is well founded and should be heeded by authorities. Correctional personnel are affected just as much as inmates are, and infection rates in prisons must be controlled through an effective visitation policy.