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Spike in Prison COVID Rates Prompts Calls for More Testing, Vaccinations, PPE Use & Inmate Releases

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New York State’s prison system is an overlooked hotspot for the COVID-19 virus, according to prison reform group New Yorkers United for Justice.  They’re calling for a range of changes to decrease its spread. Executive Director Alexander Horwitz reported that December saw a 71% increase in positive cases in prisons, with now more than 3,000 positive cases.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) only recently began testing asymptomatic prisoners. Horwitz explains how this change in testing revealed the drastic increase.

“The sudden increase as a result of this change validates what we have been warning about for months, which is that these infections are going unchecked, undocumented and untreated in DOCCS facilities.  And that is a totally unacceptable outcome.” 

Horwitz is also worried about the virus spreading to the community, as one documented case in Greene County spread from a prison to a nursing home. Correction officers’ health is also at risk.  About 65% of them at one prison reported being unsatisfied with DOCCS’s response to COVID-19. Horwitz suggests a different approach.

“It is long past time for DOCCS to follow the lead of the rest of the state: to conduct mass testing, to conduct antibody testing so we know where this virus has been, to make PPE use an absolute requirement and easy for people to access.” 

Advocates for the incarcerated say a spike in COVID cases in prisons is a hidden crisis.  State data reviewed by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press finds one in five inmates has tested positive; in Arkansas and South Dakota prisons it’s over 55%. 

(See state-by-state COVID in Prisons data here)

Legislation is being considered to have DOCCS enforce these recommendations. New York State Senator Luis Sepúlveda’s representative Diana Goodwin says legislative efforts are ongoing to reduce the spread in prisons.

“We are open to the idea of passing legislation to require open testing of everyone in the prison system.  And we have asked them to test correctional officers coming into the system and other correctional workers coming into the system, and they (DOCCS) have said, ‘Well, they can get testing in the community.’”

Assembly member David Weprin also proposes incarcerated individuals get vaccinated, and he’s backed a bill to release those who are vulnerable due to age or health conditions to prevent the spread to inmates and officers. 

Corrections system officials say their response has been guided by facts and followed advice of the Department of Health.

This story has been updated with style corrections.