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COVID-19 ramping up the pressure on harried prison medical staff

By SHERRY HALBROOK

Many PEF members who work in the state prison system would tell you privately that it is a very challenging atmosphere on many levels, and the current coronavirus pandemic has only intensified the tension and angst.

Not only do the clients include the state’s most dangerous criminals, the system at the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision favors corrections officers and often leaves the professional, scientific and technical employees that PEF represents feeling like “outsiders” who are denied the respect they deserve.

The superintendents at each facility have considerable authority and some have demonstrated greater concern than others about the pandemic’s threat.  Some have allowed contact sports to continue while others have imposed greater restrictions to reduce personal contact and the possible spread of infection.

Medical and health care staff members in the prisons are considered essential and are continuing to work through the crisis, while the educational staff members are deemed non-essential and are not working in the facilities.

“If it wasn’t for our nurses, panic in the prisons would be much greater,” a PEF member said. “This pandemic is spotlighting how important nurses and other medical staff are to the successful operation of any correctional facility.”

Asked if PEF nurses at one correctional facility are afraid of becoming infected, a co-worker said the nurses must be strong and calm just to work there under non-crisis conditions.

A PEF leader complained of the very unprofessional and often crude language used to address PEF members.  Even in this time of a medical crisis, nurses are often cursed and called vulgar names by managers and other employees.

Sometimes the nurses have the necessary personal protective equipment they need for contact with infected persons, but often they are missing gloves, masks or hand sanitizer.  And both inmates and staff are getting infected.

Nurse understaffing is a chronic issue at many, if not most, prisons and overtime was routine even before the current pandemic.  This situation is similar to flu season, but the COVID-19 virus is much more dangerous and threatens both the staff and inmates.  PEF has learned that at least some nurses from the DOCCS main office have been temporarily redeployed to bolster the health care staffing in some facilities.

When someone tests positive for the COVID-19 virus in a particular housing unit, the inmate is isolated and is moved to a hospital if greater care is necessary.  The housing unit is quarantined and the nurses must go back and forth every day to that unit to continue testing, watch for anyone new developing symptoms and ensure proper precautions are followed to prevent more inmates from becoming infected.  Ordinarily, the nurses work in the facility infirmary and only go into the housing units to respond to medical emergencies.

“We are very concerned about protecting the rights of all PEF members to safe and respectful working conditions, and we know that our members who work in direct patient care in hospitals, mental hygiene facilities, correctional facilities and other such locations are facing great challenges,” PEF President Wayne Spence said. He cited the example of some correctional facilities forcing nurses who are quarantined for the virus to use their leave accruals to cover that 14-day period, even though the governor has said they don’t need to charge leave for that time.  “Our stewards and field staff are helping members grieve such abuses,” Spence said.

“This union will continue whatever it can to represent and to help them today and every day as they put their lives on the line to serve the people of New York.  These PEF members are professionals and they deserve, not just our respect and support, but that of their managers and co-workers as well.”