Executive board member Steve Drake testifies before Senate committees on impact of COVID-19 on correctional facilities
By KATE MOSTACCIO
PEF Executive Board member Steve Drake provided testimony before the New York State Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections and Health committees as the state examines correctional facilities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and determines what steps New York should take to improve emergency readiness and prepare for future public health crises.
Drake, a vocational supervisor at Mohawk Correctional Facility, has been with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) for more than 26 years and offered first-hand insight into the needs of members.
“PEF represents almost 4,950 employees in DOCCS, as well as the staff at the Albany County Probation Department,” Drake said. “These members serve as parole officers, parole revocation specialists, nurses, social workers, dietitians, psychologists, psychiatrists, developmental specialists, teachers, offender rehabilitation aides and coordinators, translators and numerous other positions. PEF members have always been instrumental in providing health and rehabilitative services for the state’s incarcerated population, as well as helping to provide reintegration services for individuals upon release.”
Staffing and funding
Drake’s oral testimony highlighted chronic agency underfunding and understaffing.
“Let’s be clear, the state’s response to this pandemic and its efforts to keep staff and individuals in the correctional system safe were seriously handcuffed by the long-term, systemic reduction in the state workforce – a trend that has been ongoing for over a quarter of a century,” Drake said. “The flat budgets and hiring freezes precluded agencies from meeting their mandate and the onset of the pandemic transformed this long-standing issue into a crisis.”
He told the committee that members have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic and traditional response by management does more harm than good.
“Our nurses continue to face unmanageable conditions in the midst of this pandemic,” he said. “The typical tools of management to address chronic workforce shortages continue unabated, including the use of mandatory overtime, staff redeployments, lower minimum staffing requirements, and last minute shift adjustments. These tools all increase stress on families, negatively impact morale and are a poor substitute for adequate staffing.”
DOCCS facilities across the state are operating with vacancy rates between 30 and 50 percent, Drake said, and many incarcerated individuals also deal with mental health issues – putting strain on another segment of PEF membership struggling with understaffing.
“The state has not dedicated the resources or staff to help deal with this reality and, in fact, has been cutting resources and staff at the very agencies that should be charged with meeting these needs, such as OMH (Office of Mental Health) and OPWDD (Office For People With Developmental Disabilities),” he said.
Committee Chairman Sen. Luis R. Sepúlveda asked Drake if PEF members were satisfied they were being well protected in facilities and what they need going forward to feel safe in the workplace.
Drake said early in the pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages and lack of guidance was a concern. The department eventually began providing masks and the union stepped up and made PPE available to members, particularly in the community supervision offices.
The focus has shifted now to adequate ventilation.
“We continue to discuss with the department the ventilation systems,” Drake said. “Making sure they meet the highest requirement for the safety of staff and inmates alike. We have had a good dialogue on where we’re going with that.”
Drake said the state is retrofitting systems to MERV 13, when possible, and allowing some workers to open windows in program and other areas to increase ventilation and air flow.
With limited time before the committee for oral testimony, Drake’s submitted testimony contained more in-depth information for the legislators, such as calling for:
- clear designation of essential vs. non-essential employees and subsequent access to supports;
- developing guidance to protect workers and clients in facilities where difficulty social distancing and limited ability to enforce masking requirements are common;
- expanded telecommuting opportunities through bargaining and through the development of agency-specific plans;
- plans for obtaining adequate and appropriate personal protective equipment in the event of future public health crises; and
- investing the resources necessary to provide the oversight, mental health, health, child care, education, training and other services necessary for these individuals released from incarceration to succeed and thrive.
“At the DOCCS, despite the challenges posed by the nature of this highly communicable disease and the lack of clear and consistent guidance by agency management, PEF members have gone above and beyond to keep New Yorkers and the individuals under their care safe and secure,” Drake said. “New York could not have weathered this pandemic without the strong support of its public employees in the uniformed services.”