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PEF president: Wrong time for prison closures as COVID surges; all DOCCS staff should be offered vaccine

With COVID-19 cases surging in New York State correctional facilities, PEF President Wayne Spence called out the state on the ill-timed decision to close three facilities later this year and urged voluntary COVID vaccinations be made available for all Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) staff.

“Recent alarming news reports have confirmed what PEF has said since we learned about the planned closures of the Watertown, Gowanda and Clinton Annex Correctional Facilities: Now is not the time to transfer prison staff to new assignments and crowd the system with more inmates in fewer facilities,” Spence said. “A study by the Correctional Association of New York concluded that 36 of the 52 New York State prisons are now dealing with COVID outbreaks. (Rockland/Westchester Journal News, https://www.recordonline.com/story/news/coronavirus/2021/01/06/new-york-prisons-see-spike-in-covid-cases-positivity-rates/4142109001/)

“Just this week, I was informed that at least 29 incarcerated individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 at Groveland Correctional Facility in Sonyea, N.Y., resulting in the mandatory quarantine of more than 30 staff members,” he said. “The larger snapshot over the course of this pandemic from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) as of yesterday is even more stark: 3,450 inmates across the state have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 3,380 staff and 170 parolees. Twenty-seven inmates have died, along with six staff members and four parolees. (DOCCS COVID-19 Report, https://doccs.ny.gov/doccs-covid-19-report)

“Remember last March, during the first coronavirus surge, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo said inmates aren’t the problem when it comes to COVID, it’s the staff who bring the virus inside the prison? Well, nothing has changed nine months later,” Spence said. “The more people who congregate in a space, the higher the risk of spreading the virus. Closing three correctional facilities in March of this year will only exacerbate the problem and increase community spread of this disease. The health and lives of inmates, DOCCS staff and the communities in which they reside and work are at risk.

“There is some good news amid the outbreaks,” he said. “DOCCS has recognized that its medical staff needs to be inoculated as soon as possible against COVID. I have advised all eligible PEF members who volunteer for the vaccination to register immediately, but it is not enough. Given the alarming spike in infections, sickness and death in New York’s prisons and jails, PEF will continue to push for all DOCCS employees – teachers, counselors, Office of Mental Health and parole personnel who work inside congregate facilities – to receive the vaccine without delay.”