Concerned about COVID in North Country Prisons, about COVID Tracing and Confidentiality? Write a Letter to the Governor

by | May 20, 2020

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo,

Governor of New York State

NYS State Capitol Building

Albany, NY 12224

Re.: COVID-related issues: COVID in NYS prisons; COVID Tracing & Confidentiality

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, home to 15 NYS Correctional Facilities. I find myself concerned about what is going on behind their walls, home to 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 information about the impact of COVID and the incidence of illness and death among CF staff, particularly CO’s, and inmates. On today’s DOCCS website, 465 inmates of 40,000-plus statewide are reported to have been infected with COVID, along with 61 parole violators incarcerated in county jails. An additional 1206 staff members of approximately 10,000 statewide are also reported to have fallen ill. As for Covid-caused deaths, 16 inmates, 4 parole violators and 4 staff members have died. Data on individual facilities is not being reported for “security reasons.”

Frankly, given the high incidence of COVID infection known to be present within congregate correctional facilities such as Riker’s Island in New York City and Cook County jail in Chicago, the foregoing NYS data seem remarkably low. The measures taken by DOCSS to protect inmates and staff also seem inadequate: the distribution of masks and hand sanitizer; posters and videos demonstrating proper handwashing; prohibition of family visitation. Social distancing, necessary but difficult to effect in such circumstances, is not taking place; infected inmates are being isolated, from my reading, in special housing units or shu’s, i.e., solitary confinement; crucially, no testing appears to be taking place.

More than a month ago, I posted an article on my website, www.paddlingupstream.org, entitled “If New York City Is the First COVID Wave, Is the North Country the Second?”. My fear, expressed in that article and shared by other residents of the community, is that a COVID outbreak in one or more of our CF’s would 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 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 also involves protection, in this instance, of confidentiality and personal information as contact tracing begin in earnest. Again, you and the Commissioner of Health appear to have failed to address this issue in any detail, arousing my and fellow residents’ anxiety about how information provided by COVID-infected individuals will be safeguarded, where and by whom. There are guidelines from the CDC that seek to address confidentiality protections for both the infected person and the persons identified as those with whom  she/he has been in recent contact. Further, contact tracing is a standard epidemiological data collection instrument, already utilized in NYS with great success in anti-HIV and anti-STD campaigns. Very few NYers know this history. It would put today’s COVID tracing in a helpful context and work to secure affected persons’ cooperation if they did.

Yet this would only constitute an important first step. The COVID tracing will not rely, as in past initiatives, on face to face contact between those affected and the tracers, with data compiled via pencil and paper. Rather, tracing will take place via ‘phone contacts with data compiled on computers. A recent New Yorker article – “Can We Track COVID-19 and Protect Privacy at the Same Time?”, April 27, 2020 — (https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/can-we-track-covid-19-and-protect-privacy-at-the-same-time?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker) — detailed the basic problem with this approach: computers are readily hackable, with the data accessed often sold to the highest bidder. Accordingly, NYS residents need to know what steps will be taken by the State to safeguard the information collected in this new volatile and unsafe environment and thereby protect the privacy of the vulnerable informant as well as those revealed to have been in contact with him/her and to be possible COVID carriers. This, of course, is nobody’s business but the individuals’ in question and those medical representatives of the State designated to help them.

If contact tracing is to be as effective as you and public health experts believe it will be, we need you to discuss this issue during one of your very effective daily COVID briefings, again to allay people’s anxieties and suspicions. We also need, posted on the Department of Health website, a full description of the tracing process and the measures to be taken to maintain the confidentiality of data collected. Taken together, both steps should increase the likelihood of our cooperation and serve to help contain the virus and avoid that hypothetical second surge.

Thank you for your attention to the issues I have raised. I trust you will take the actions you deem necessary to address and resolve them. You will note the listing of the officials and elected representatives that I believed important to copy to enlist the help they can provide.

Yours truly,

Jack Carney, DSW

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

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

The Hon. James Tedsico, NYS Senator, 49th SD

The Hon. Robert Smullen, NYS Assemblyman, 118th AD

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