Concerned About COVID in North Country and NYS Prisons? What Does the Governor’s and DOCCS Director’s Silence about COVID in the Prisons Actually Mean? Write a Letter to the Governor and Ask Him to Speak Out, Part II.

by | Jun 25, 2020

Introduction: Little more than a month ago, I sent e-mails to Governor Cuomo, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, and to my Albany representatives, Senator Jim Tedisco, 49th SD, and Assemblyman Robert Smullen, 118th AD, asking the above questions. I received no responses and am setting about doing the same things again.

You might ask why I simply don’t accept the non-replies as indications there are no problems in our State prisons. If you look at the DOCCS  website, the COVID numbers they report are low: 517 inmates have tested positive, of whom 488 are considered recovered and 16 of whom passed away; 800 had negative test results and 23 test results are pending. Prison staff members., including corrections officers, have also been impacted: 1289 have tested positive, 5 of whom have died (DOCCS, 6/19/20).

From another perspective, the total number of inmates tested, 1340, in a total prison population of  approximately 47,000 (Correctional Association of New York, 2018) represents a testing rate of 2.8%, which is low. Since large scale testing is not cited as a COVID mitigation measure on DOCCS website, I’ve assumed prison medical staff are testing only those inmates who present with symptoms. DOCCS is also relying on social distancing and self-isolation as key control strategies, marginally useful at best without knowing which inmates are actually COVID positive.

(FYI. The 14 State prisons located within or near the Adirondack Park Blueline, including Great Meadow in Washington County, can house up to 13,000 inmates (CANY, 2018). As of 6/19/20, DOCS listed 117 inmates as having been tested, a possible rate of less than 1%, with 45 [42 from Great Meadows] testing positive; 44 of whom have recovered. We can only hope those numbers are real and inclusive.)

It’s unclear how many corrections officers have or are being tested, since only positives are cited, again, 1289 total staff members. In a total prison staff population of 19,000 corrections officers (NYS Committee on Correction, 2018), this translates to a possible and incomplete testing rate of 6.8%, also low. It would be important to know the complete testing numbers and rate for all staff members, not just c.o.’s, since these are the only individuals that move in and out of the prisons and are thought to be the prisons’ primary COVID carriers. Since April, DOCCS instituted a system-wide lockdown, reducing inter-prison transfers and prohibiting outside visitation to inmates. The key measure which DOCCS appears to have neglected is staff-wide testing. 

Temperature-taking at staff members’ work arrival does not fully indicate who might be COVID-positive since we have learned that at any given moment a person can be symptom-free yet COVID-infected. Similarly, universal mask-wearing and hand-washing are necessary mitigation measures whose effectiveness is undercut where social distancing is hard to maintain. In sum, all attempts to contain COVID’s spread in a congregant closed setting risk being marginalized by staff members who regularly come and go and remain untested. 

I’m reminded of the nursing home calamity, where the virus was first introduced by untested staff coming and going and later exacerbated when Covid+ patients were transferred in from over-stressed hospitals. Which obliges me to view the Governor’s, the Health Commissioner’s and the Acting DOCCS Director’s lack of transparency with great skepticism. I’m also reminded of the Governor’s veto last year of a bill that’s once again been introduced into both Houses’ Health Committees, A10463A and S8315A, which would amend the existing public health law and allow the Department of Health to review DOCCS’s strategies to address new infectious diseases such as COVID. I imagine that if the Governor had signed the bill, much of what might be happening in the State’s CF’s could have been avoided.

Interested in pressing the Governor and his subordinates to answer our questions and issue a full report of what’s happening in State prisons? Interested in pressing the Governor to sign the public health law amendment this time around, assuming it gets out of Committees? Take a look at the form letters presented below, addressed to the following persons:

  • Governor Mario Cuomo, with cc’s to:
  • Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Director, DOCCS
  • Howard Zucker, MD, JD, Commissioner of Health
  • The Hon Richard Gottfried, Chair, Assembly Health Committee
  • The Hon. Gustavo Rivera, Chair, Senate Health Committee
  • The Hon David I. Weprin, Chair, Committee on Correction
  • The Hon. Luis Sepulveda, Chair, Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee
  • The Hon. Carl Heastie, Speaker, NYS Assembly
  • The Hon. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senate Majority Leader

On the page following the Governor’s letter, you will find links to the FORM letters addressed to each person being copied. A copy of the Governor’s letter should be enclosed with each form letter. Please note that you will have to CLICK ON THE LINK, PRINT OUT these letters, ADDRESS  and MAIL them on your own. Actual letters, in envelopes with stamps and containing actual signatures usually carry more weight than an e-mail or voice mail or FB post.  So please take this extra step so we can be heard. I have no expectation that those of you who get involved in this project will send out all ten letters. However many you decide to send out, view the list above in descending order of importance. Finally, please advise me if you will be joining this effort and if and when you receive a response —  I will circulate the latter info to all participants and post notices on FB. Many thanks for your help and cooperation. In the struggle …

1st – Form Letter to the Governor: on next page …

Please remember to copy this and include it with the form letters sent to the persons copied; will save you time and effort. You will also find below a link to the Governor’s letter. Click on it and print out. This letter should be included with each of the letters to the persons copied.

  2nd – Links to the Form Letters to each of the nine persons copied on the Governor’s letter…

Immediately following the Governor’s letter... you will find links to all nine letters, including the letter to Cuomo. Just click on each link and the pertinent letter will appear. Note that you will have to include your name and return address and signature; print out each letter, address and mail it. Don’t forget to include the letter to the Governor with each of the letters to to the persons being copied.

Any questions, post on FB, send an e-mail – [email protected]; or call – 518-624-4000.

Thank you.

Jack

* * * * * * * *

Governor Cuomo’s Letter:

Links to download this and all letters follow below.

Name: ____________________________

Return Address:  ____________________________

                             ____________________________

June 25, 2020

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo, 

Governor of New York State 

NYS State Capitol Building 

Albany, NY 12224

Re.:  COVID in NYS prisons:

  • Lack of testing
  • Passage of bills A10463A and S8315A

Dear Governor Cuomo:

Allow me to begin by thanking  you for the leadership you have provided us during these most dangerous times … with two caveats, which have prompted this letter to you.

First, I live in the North Country, location of  14 NYS Correctional Facilities. I find myself concerned about what is going on behind their walls, home to more than 10,000 inmates and workplace for several thousand Correctional Officers and civilian employees. DOCCS on its website and you in your daily briefings are providing little and somewhat questionable information about the impact of COVID and the incidence of illness and death among CF staff, particularly CO’s, and inmates

On DOCCS 6/19/20 website, 1340 inmates of 47,000-plus statewide are reported to have been tested for COVID, a testing  rate of 2.8%, assuming DOCCS’s COVID data are accurate. Of this number, 517 inmates have tested positive, with 488  considered recovered, and 800 negative with 23 test results still pending. Five inmates have passed away.  

My question to you is why so few inmates have been tested to date? Since large scale testing is not cited as a COVID mitigation measure on the DOCCS website, I’ve assumed prison medical staff are testing only those inmates who present with symptoms. DOCCS is also relying on social distancing and self-isolation as key control strategies,  marginally useful at best without knowing which inmates are actually COVID positive.

(FYI. The 14 State prisons located within or near the Adirondack Park Blueline, including Great Meadow in Washington County, can house up to 13,000 inmates (CANY, 2018). As of 6/19/20, DOCS listed 117 inmates as having been tested, a probable rate of less than 1%, with 45 [42 from Great Meadows] testing positive, 44 of whom have recovered. We can only hope those numbers are real and inclusive.)

It’s unclear how many corrections officers have or are being tested, since only positive results, involving 1289 total staff members, are cited  by DOCCS. In a total prison staff population of 19,000 corrections officers (NYS Committee on Correction, 2018), this translates to a possible — and incomplete — testing rate of 6.8%. It would be important to know the complete testing numbers and rate for all staff members, not just c.o.’s, since these are the only individuals that move in and out of the prisons and are presumed to be the prisons’ primary COVID carriers. The key measure which DOCCS appears to have neglected is staff-wide testing. 

My fear, shared by other residents of the community, is that a COVID outbreak in one or more of our CF’s could spill over into and overwhelm local hospitals and then into the larger community. A comprehensive report from you and by DOCCS of what is happening within State and North Country-located prisons, and the initiation of COVID and anti-body testing within them would do much to allay our apprehensions and assure us that CO’s and inmates are being protected and not abandoned. 

My second concern involves the passage into law of a measure, passed in the 2019 legislative session, that you vetoed. An iteration of that bill, A10463A and A8315A, whose chief sponsors are Assemblyman Gottfried and Senator Rivera,  have been re-introduced by them in the Assembly and Senate Health Committees each respectively chairs. Its objective is to amend the current public health law “to expand Department of Health (DOH) review of health policies and practices in Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS} and local correctional facilities in relation to emerging infectious diseases.”

The bill’s sponsors reference COVID in its “Justification” section as well as  the success of the 2009 law they seek to amend as having “been successful in addressing HIV/AIDS with a viral suppression rate consistently over 90% in DOCCS, and ten times more individuals currently receive Hepatitis C care in NYS DOCCS than any other state.” Accordingly, it is tempting to believe that were this same law in effect today, allowing DOH review and participation in the formulation of DOCCS’s policies and practices, my and others’ concerns regarding COVID in our prisons would have been addressed. 

I have no idea why you vetoed this same bill last year, but the consequences do not appear to be salutary: DOCCS and its acting Director, Mr. Annucci, are not being obliged to be transparent about COVID, with Mr. Annucci declining interviews with local media representatives, as per North Country Public Radio. Again, I would urge you and Acting Director Annucci to provide a comprehensive and public report about COVID in prison to pre-empt misinformation and rumor and to allay the fears and anxieties that the public and the families of inmates and staff members are sure to have. 

In closing, I also urge you to sign the Gottfried/Rivera revision of the State’s public health law, should it once again get to your desk. State DOH and its Commissioner, Dr. Zucker, should then be able to provide to DOCCS the resources and expertise it could very well be in need of in this time of COVID. 

Thank you for your attention to my letter. I look forward to your response at your earliest convenience.

Yours truly,

Signature: __________________________

cc. – Dr. Howard J. Zucker, Commissioner of Health, NY State

         Anthony Annucci, Acting Commissioner, Dept of Corrections and Community Supervision 

         The Hon. Carl Heastie, Speaker, NYS Assembly

         The Hon. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senate Majority Leader

         The Hon Richard Gottfried, Chair, Assembly Health Committee

         The Hon. Gustavo Rivera, Chair, Senate Health Committee

         The Hon David I. Weprin, Chair, Committee on Correction

         The Hon. Luis Sepulveda, Chair, Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee

* * * * * * * * *

Links to Form letters to all nine persons cc’d begin below.

Link to download Governor Cuomo letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

Link to download Howard Zucker letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

Link to download Anthony J. Annucci letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

Link to download Richard Gottfried letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

Link to download Gustavo Rivera letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

Link to download David I. Weprin letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

Link to download Luis Sepulveda letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

Link to download Carl Heastie letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

Link to download Andrea Stewart-Cousins letter: PDF VersionWord Document Version

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