Department of Correction staff throughout the city’s jail facilities are failing to adhere to COVID-19 protocols, according to the Legal Aid Society and the Board of Correction.
In a Sept. 4 letter to DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann and the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice released earlier this week, an attorney with the public-interest organization said its staff has documented “a persistent failure” by department staff to wear masks and follow social-distancing guidelines.
‘A Horror Show’
Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Practice, wrote that compliance with the protocols was essential for staff, particularly since they frequently move within jail facilities.
She cited several instances of Legal Aid attorneys while conducting in-person visits to jails or taking part in video conferences seeing staff without masks or wearing them improperly.
One attorney said she saw only two correction officers properly wearing masks during a mid-August visit to Rikers Island that lasted hours. None of the desk officers or the at-least five officers with whom she rode the bus to the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers were correctly wearing their masks, she said, adding that she saw no cleaning or sanitation removal while at the jails.
Earlier this month, an attorney visiting a client at the George R. Vierno Center watched two officers going from bus to bus ensuring that "masks required" signs were posted who themselves were not wearing masks.
And an attorney who made visits to inmates on Rikers Island in late August and early September said that only someone who was an “extreme risk-taker” would think about going to Rikers Island, and described the jail complex as a “horror show” for inmates, DOC personnel and visitors.
Borough Jails Also Dicey
“My staff reports that this problem extends across multiple facilities in the borough jails and on Rikers Island, and that it has occurred for months,” Ms. Luongo wrote.
During the Board Of Correction’s Sept. 14 meeting, its executive director, Margaret Egan, said board staff, which conduct regular on-site visits to jails, documented DOC staff and inmates “regularly not wearing masks.”
According to an April report by the American Civil Liberties Union Analytics and researchers at several universities, because of “the constant movement between jails and the broader community,” including by staff, the nation’s “jails will act as vectors for the COVID-19 pandemic in our communities. They will become veritable volcanoes for the spread of the virus.”
DOC policy states that “all staff and all persons in custody are provided and instructed to wear face masks.”
Unions representing correction officers for weeks during the height of the pandemic rapped both the city and the DOC for what they said was the failure to provide adequate personal protection equipment, going so far as to take court action to oblige the DOC to provide masks for their members. The unions also bought masks for their officers.
COBA: Bait for Lawsuit
Through a spokesman, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Benny Boscio, declined to be interviewed about Legal Aid’s findings. In a statement, he dismissed the Legal Aid letter as “a classic example” by inmates to “cash in” via a lawsuit.
In the statement, Mr. Boscio also chastised the DOC for not parlaying the reduction in inmate populations to minimize COVID risks. Instead, he said, “the DOC is consolidating facilities, making them even more crowded and less prepared for a second wave of COVID-19.
According to Board of Correction analyses of DOC census data, inmate population density has been steadily increasing, as has the number of inmates.
As of Sept. 4, the virus had infected 1,317 correction officers and 110 non-uniformed DOC staff, according to the BOC, which began tracking infections among staff and inmates on its website April 1. At least eight have died as a result of complications after contracting the virus, according to the unions.
Three inmates died from virus complications, according to the Correctional Health Services and DOC data provided to the BOC. That number does not include inmates who were diagnosed as COVID-positive who might have died after they were released. As of Sept. 4, 262 current inmates were either confirmed positive or back in the general population after hospitalization, according to the BOC.
No Cases Past 2 Months
The DOC said it had not had a case within the jails since July 5.
In a statement, the DOC’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, Peter Thorne, said the department “regularly communicates with staff” regarding the use of protective equipment.
“We are committed to ensuring that all those who work and live in our facilities remain safe during the COVID-19 crisis and will continue to impress upon staff the importance of following public health guidelines,” he said.
After spiking among staff and inmates in April and May, infections plummeted within the jails. By definition, though, conditions inside the jails are ripe for an expected second coronavirus surge.
During the Board of Correction’s meeting, the DOC’s Deputy Commissioner of Quality Assurance and Integrity, Patricia Feeney, said the department had “plenty” of readily available protective equipment for both staff and inmates.
“It is expected that deficiencies will be abated immediately,” she said.
Not Encouraged to Wear
But Robert Cohen, a board member and a physician who is a former director of the Montefiore Rikers Island Health Services, said that during an August visit to the Anna M. Kross Center jail on Rikers, he did not see that masks were as available to staff as the Deputy Commissioner suggested.
“I observed at that time a substantial failure of staff and of incarcerated persons to be wearing masks. It was the normal process there,” he said. “Clearly there was no process involved in encouraging people to wear masks...I did not get any sense this was a very isolated experience.”
He said he was concerned about DOC plans for coping with a second wave should it occur.
In response, Commissioner Brann recalled the department’s success in managing the coronavirus outbreak within city jails, but agreed with Dr. Cohen that staff were too often forsaking masks.
“When I tour, I see the same things that you do and I frequently remind staff about wearing their masks,” she said, adding that signage about them “is up everywhere.”
Masks are there for the asking, she said.