Two Years Into Pandemic, Basic Critiques of Prison Covid Policies Remain Unaddressed
DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci at a medals ceremony in Albany | DOCCS

Two Years Into Pandemic, Basic Critiques of Prison Covid Policies Remain Unaddressed

The prison agency has done little to update policies on transparency, masks, social distancing, or vaccination.

Several times a week, when the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) released the current numbers on COVID-19 cases in state prisons, Evan Misshula would sit down in front of his computer to parse the data. 

Because DOCCS releases the numbers in a static PDF, which overrides the previous PDF hosted on their website, Misshula first had to use a program to convert the PDF into text. Then he would run that text through code that he estimates took him ten full days to write. Through that code, he could unravel the oddities of how DOCCS reports—for example, it does not report how many recent tests came back positive, instead providing only cumulative counts since the beginning of the pandemic.

Some forty-five minutes after he began the process, Misshula—who worked until mid-February as the Associate Director of Research for the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), the state’s legally designated prison monitor—could finally see a snapshot of COVID positivity rates across New York’s 52 prisons.

The reality hiding behind the data is grim, and shows how vulnerable the system remains to new waves of the virus. Between December 1, 2021 and January 20, 2022, as the omicron variant spread like wildfire, active COVID-19 cases in New York prisons tripled, Misshula calculated. 

On January 24, there were 44 deaths listed, up from 42; the next day, after advocates began mourning the two new losses with a social media campaign, that number decreased to 43. In an email, DOCCS official Rachel S. Connors told New York Focus that the decrease was because it was determined an individual died not because of his positive COVID status, but due to a cardiac arrest.

But DOCCS never explained the changing numbers to the public, a small example of a pervasive lack of transparency that watchdogs say limits their ability to do their work.

“If we’re not able to find out if there has been an increase in cases, where there has been a decrease in cases, if we’re crunching the numbers ourselves, it’s very difficult to see what’s happening and what needs to change,” Sumeet Sharma, CANY’s Director of Monitoring and Advocacy, told New York Focus.

The way the prisons agency currently reports its numbers, Sharma continued, “shows a clear intention of not giving people numbers that they can work with.”

These are not new frustrations. But as the pandemic enters its third year, DOCCS hasn’t addressed basic critiques of its transparency, or of much else—including their policies on masks, social distancing, and vaccinations.

That has left many of the 30,000 people locked up in New York’s prisons—and especially the growing elderly population—little better protected against future waves of the virus than they have been since the start of the pandemic, incarcerated people and watchdogs say.

“I cannot help but feel that DOCCS is acting with deliberate indifference to our medical needs,” Kelly Harnett wrote from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Westchester County where she has been incarcerated since 2015.

Forbidden Masks

Theresa Grady has a seemingly simple request: she would like to give her husband, who is serving a forty-year sentence at Green Haven, a maximum-security prison in Dutchess County, a mask. If she can’t mail it, she’s willing to bring it to him in person.

But both options are forbidden.

Connors, the DOCCS spokesperson, explained the rationale behind that policy: “It is important that the Department not only ensure quality control of the masks used within its facilities, but also that all incarcerated individuals have fair and equal access to PPE.”

Yet incarcerated people report that they aren’t being given high-quality masks, and have to reuse old masks for weeks or months or end because the prisons won’t give them new ones.

In January, the CDC released new masking guidance emphasizing that N95 and KN95 masks provide the most protection, especially compared to cloth masks. Yet only cloth masks are made regularly available to incarcerated people; Grady and Gerald Burnett, who is currently incarcerated at Bare Hill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Franklin County, independently described them as made out of “t-shirt” material. 

“They refuse to upgrade the mask to N95 as the CDC requested,” Laverne Graham wrote from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Thomas Mailey, DOCCS’s Public Information Officer, told New York Focus that shipments of “washable, reusable cloth masks” are sent to prisons every “four to five weeks and include enough supply to provide each incarcerated individual with two.”

Mailey said that all incarcerated people had been issued 30 masks since the start of the pandemic. (He initially said they’d been given “over a dozen reusable masks,” the same figure he had cited to New York Focus in May 2021; in response to a follow-up question, another spokesperson revised the figure to 30.)

But many incarcerated people continue to say that masks can still be hard to come by. Corey Arthur was transferred from Dutchess County’s Fishkill to Orange County’s Otisville on December 21. In a January 15 email to New York Focus, he wrote that he had yet to be offered a mask, even though he had been moved between multiple units.

Meanwhile, enforcement is uneven from facility to facility, from unit to unit, and between staff, prisoners, and visitors. 

Grady said that when she visits her husband at Green Haven, “COs don’t have masks on, but we [visitors] have masks.”

“I guess they say who cares. The only time I see them put masks on is when there’s a white shirt—a sergeant—coming. They have their masks on their chins, on their foreheads. Clearly they’re not worried about putting other people in harms’ way,” Grady said.

At Bare Hill, Wesley Williams said that not only do officers and civilians not usually wear masks, but that he worked in the mess hall while he and others had COVID.

“They are forcing us to work, and if we don’t work they will beat us up and put us in the box [solitary confinement], not giving us food. Food has no real nutritional value, and the cooks don’t wear masks when they cook the food—as I said, no one wears them,” Williams said.

James Miller, the public relations director of the union representing correction officers, said that because instances of officers not wearing masks or wearing masks improperly are “unsubstantiated,” they have “no position on those reports.”

Mask-wearing can take outsized importance in facilities where social distancing is all but impossible.

Robert Reed, who recovered from a case of coronavirus that he thought would kill him, wrote from Bare Hill that he is “stressed every day and night by the threat of getting the virus due to the close proximities of prisoners and prison staff members. . . . There is no distancing from exposure to the virus because every building within this facility lacks a place to sufficiently distance from prisoners and staff because prisons aren’t designed for virus control.”

Booster shots 

DOCCS does not make available to the general public data on vaccination rates among incarcerated people, and it has not announced any plan for rolling out booster shots. According to Connors, as of February 22, 54.1% of the incarcerated population was fully vaccinated (compared to about 75 percent in the state at large), and 8,812 booster shots had been administered. 

In the past, the state has been reluctant to prioritize vaccinating people in prison. In late March 2021, a state judge ruled that the Cuomo administration had to offer vaccines to the entire incarcerated population, rather than only specific high-risk groups.

Still, the rollout of booster shots may be smoother than that of the original shots. Three incarcerated people, including Arthur and Williams, said that booster shots had been offered in their facilities. At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, however, Kelly Harnett said in mid-January that she had not been offered a booster shot.

Williams told New York Focusthat at Bare Hill, “Boosters have been offered, but, to be honest, no one trusts the people giving them.” 

That reflects a high level of vaccine skepticism among incarcerated people, compounded by their experiences with the prison healthcare system.  Just one in ten respondents to a CANY survey said they trusted doctors and healthcare providers to make medically correct decisions, while five times that many respondents said they trusted providers on the outside to do the same.

The deep-rootedness of many incarcerated people’s vaccine skepticism makes it a difficult problem to address in the short-term. Education and outreach from trusted figures such as clergy, teachers, and professors (many of whom have been unable to work in-person) might convince some. Other solutions suggested by CANY, such bringing prison health facilities under the purview of the Department of Health and reducing the number of people who are incarcerated, would require intervention from other parts of the state government.

Quarantine

During the omicron surge, people incarcerated in many prisons were put in near-constant quarantine.

“One of most troubling things is that when there are these large outbreaks, there are entire [housing] units—and large amounts of units—being placed in quarantine,” said CANY’s Sharma. 

Sharma described the severe burden of quarantine: “During that time, there is no access to programs, no access to legal communications. We’ve heard from attorneys who haven’t been able to get in touch with their clients. It’s incredibly problematic if due process is being suspended due to quarantine. And each time someone comes into contact with someone with COVID-19 the quarantine is extended, so you can essentially be in quarantine indefinitely.”

Sheila Davalloo wrote that her unit at Bedford Hills was on a “very strict” “quarantine” schedule of 23 to 24 hours a day for “most of December and the first week of Jan[uary],” and that about once a week they would be locked in for a “31 hour stretch.” 

Sophie Gebreselassie, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, said that there is a “worry that some of the measures taken in response may lead to unnecessarily punitive conditions, conditions that will impact individuals’ ability to access healthcare, mental healthcare, and programming.”

“We’ve been in this pandemic for quite some time,” she continued. “It’s concerning to hear that quarantine can be too punitive, and it can be hard to square with rational protective measures for folks missing medical and mental healthcare treatment.”

Harnett said she tested positive for COVID-19 on January 4, when—after waiting to be transferred for seven hours—she was moved to the Bedford Hills infirmary before being moved to a sixty-person COVID-positive unit on January 13. There, she said, “medical care is basically nonexistent.” 

That took a toll. “When we were in the infirmary, someone smashed all the windows because they were being ignored for far too long. Now that we are on the covid unit, everyone screams all day long, it is truly exhausting.”

Similar conditions have been reported at quarantine units throughout the prison system. . After his arrival at Otisville, Corey Arthur says he pleaded with administrators that there were too many people held in reception housing, where incarcerated people stay when they first arrive at a prison, and that social distancing was impossible. Things got worse on January 11, when an incident on the north side of the prison, where an entire housing unit was quarantined, led to ten men being moved to the holding cells on the floor above the reception housing. 

“I heard the prisoners being held there shouting that they were being mistreated. There came a point when they were screaming through the windows they had no sink or toilet water in their cells. They were also shouting that they were up to their ankles in piss and shit. They were banging and shouting so loud that the entire building shook.”

On the night of January 13, Arthur says, water started to leak through the light fixtures onto the beds below. Staff shuffled people around, but that meant that social distancing was abandoned; the beds were “barely 18 inches” apart. 

Emmanuel Trice, who was also living in reception at Otisville, reports that even days after an effort was made to repair the leak, “there’s a giant hole in the ceiling that was covered up by a wooden board, [and] there’s feces on the ceiling.”

“Guys are being moved from dorm to dorm without being tested, and when random testing is done and someone tests positive, they’ll move that guy and the [two] guys to the side of him but not test ALL the other men in the dorm with him, who share the kiosk, the phone, stove, bathroom,” Trice wrote.

I get that COVID changes things but it seems as if no one cares about the well being of the prisoners.”