Although the recorded number of people contracting the coronavirus has dropped significantly citywide since the height of the pandemic six weeks ago, the number of confirmed cases within city jails has stayed constant, despite a sizable reduction in the jail population.
That vast majority of new cases are traceable to new detainees, however, suggesting that the Department of Correction and its partner agency, Correctional Health Services, managed to contain the virus’s spread despite pervasive fears that it would overrun facilities whose environments by nature are fertile breeding grounds for contagious illness.
The union representing Correction Officers, though, remained critical of the DOC’s actions, saying that the agency was slow to respond to the crisis and failed to institute adequate protocols or to swiftly distribute protective equipment to its members, at least five of whom had died after contracting the virus.
On April 1, when the Board of Correction began publishing corona-related statistics within jails using DOC data, 184 inmates in a jail population of 4,632 had tested positive.
Inmates’ confirmed cases would climb to a high of 381 on April 27, even as the population decreased to 3,875. The contagion, though, then began a slow decline.
As of May 18, 365 inmates had tested positive in a population of 3,954.
Daily positive tests have declined from dozens in late March and early April to the single digits since mid-April, according to CHS data.
“The majority of new positive tests that we’re seeing now do not come from the jail population but from new admissions coming into the system,” Dr. Ross MacDonald, CHS’s chief medical officer, said during the May 12 Board of Correction meeting.
Sharp Drop in Fevers
Where CHS staff were daily detecting upward of 30 inmates with fevers, with most representing new cases of COVID, during the height of the contagion, those numbers have declined to “about 5 at most,” closer to normal, he said.
Still, about 7 percent of newly admitted inmates are displaying virus symptoms, which Dr. MacDonald conceded was a high rate.
New admissions, symptomatic and confirmed-positive inmates have been kept separate and quarantined from the general population, including at the formerly closed Eric M. Taylor Center and the West Facility, which includes some of the DOC’s Communicable Disease Unit, on Rikers Island, and at the Manhattan Detention Center downtown.
But it remains unclear how many detainees who have been released had tested positive and how many might have subsequently died as the result of contracting the virus.
City and state authorities began releasing inmates from city jails March 20, with first dozens and then hundreds of those considered low-risk brought out of confinement as officials sought to contain the virus’s spread within Rikers Island and other facilities.
Twice as Many Exits
Since March 16, when officials unveiled a number of measures designed to reduce the virus’s advance, the number of detainees released has been roughly double the number of newly incarcerated detainees, resulting in a net drop of nearly 28 percent in the inmate population as of May 18, according to data from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Board of Correction.
DOC and CHS officials said collaborative measures undertaken at the outset of the pandemic had minimized the infection rate within the jails. Those included the suspension of visits, the testing of detainees and the quarantining or isolating of members of the prison population who were either at risk or had tested positive, as well as hygienic measures and the distribution of protective equipment.
DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said the steady decline of confirmed cases was a clear indication that the agencies’ strategies were working.
“When I reflect back at the whirlwind that was the past two months, I’m struck by the fact that we amassed a mountain of accomplishments in a matter of days and weeks in March” when the DOC quickly “created systems and operations from the ground up,” she said during the BOC’s May meeting.
Between March 25 and mid-May, 34 inmates had been hospitalized and three had died of COVID-19 complications, Patricia Yang, a CHS senior vice president, told a joint meeting of the City Council’s Criminal Justice and Justice System Committees May 19.
Although she noted that 545 out of 1,154 inmates had tested positive for the virus as of May 15, she attributed that high number to CHS’s “aggressive testing,” which she put at a rate 4.3 times higher than for the rest of New York City.
Containment, including by separately housing those most vulnerable to illness away from those who had tested positive, “was a foundational strategy,” she said, adding that all new detainees since the end of April had been tested.
“I’m certain that together we saved many lives,” she told the Council committees.
‘Effort to Conceal?’
Although Commissioner Brann and other DOC officials several times said the agency was committed to being transparent regarding jail conditions and protocols during the pandemic, Councilman Rory Lancman, the Chairman of the Justice System Committee, said it had been slow to make public internal and other data tied to the virus’s spread within the jails. He wondered why “it took weeks and weeks” for the Council and the public to get certain information, and asked if that was part of an effort to conceal news of the spread.
And Councilman Keith Powers, the Chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said some information was still unclear, including the aggregate number of prisoners who had tested positive at any point.
“We know that jail environments are inherently dangerous during this time, but we don’t have a full picture of how dangerous. In the midst of all this, the need to monitor jail conditions and to release people in custody could not be clearer,” Mr. Powers said.
Others, including at the Board of Correction, have also faulted the DOC for not being fully forthcoming about conditions within the jails during the crisis.
The BOC, the city jails’ watchdog agency, during a two-week audit of the jails in April found several concerning issues as the virus started to spread, despite what its report said were “extraordinary steps” taken by the DOC, but also noted the “immense structural challenges” to protecting both inmates and staff from exposure.
The observations, all done by remote access, noted poor social-distancing, a lack of disinfectant near phones, and a high occurrence of improper use of masks.
Not unexpectedly, Frederic Fusco, the legislative chairman of the Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents more than 9,600 active officers, was critical of the DOC’s response to the pandemic’s incursion into city jails.
Although jails by nature are conducive to the spread of infection, their closed environments also allow for the institution of practices and protocols that would prevent a virus’s introduction, and to isolate those who are infected, Mr. Fusco said in written testimony submitted to the panels.
Too Slow on Protocols
“Unfortunately, and tragically, the Department of Correction did not observe those proper protocols quickly enough, despite the repeated urging of COBA,” he wrote, adding that Rikers “had quickly become the epicenter of the outbreak” in the city, “itself the global epicenter.”
He said that the union early on petitioned for protective equipment and for rigorous screening and testing of staff and visitors to minimize the threat of the spread. COBA also recommended activating unused facilities within Rikers to separate those inmates who were thought to need quarantine or isolation. Those suggestions were disregarded, he said.
He also was critical of the agency’s imposition of triple tours.
“The DOC only reversed course and implemented a testing protocol; provided sufficient PPE to staff; and stopped assignment of triple shifts after COBA filed several lawsuits to challenge those deeply flawed decisions,” he wrote.
The Council’s joint-committee hearing also considered the introduction of three bills, including legislation that would create a local conditional-release commission responsible for determining which detainees could be released and under what conditions. A second bill would require the DOC and CHS to compile and issue reports during “public health emergencies.”
The third piece of legislation would set a $5 maximum fee for transferring money to a detainee. According to the legislation, a private company that facilitates such transfers, JPay, charges as much as $20 per transaction, and New Yorkers spent about $2 million in Fiscal Year 2018 on those fees alone.
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