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ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT: Elias Husamudeen, the head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, center, holding an Avon M50 respirator, a $700 piece of equipment he wants the city to purchase for DOC staff that has contact with inmates. Pictured with him outside of COBA’s East Elmhurst offices on March 18 are, left to right, COBA Legislative Chairman Freddy Fusco, Bronx Trustee Tyson Jones and Correction Captains’ Association President Patrick Ferraiuolo, who advocates isolating incoming prisoners to lessen the risk of contagion.

Following the announcement that a uniformed Department of Correction employee and, it was later confirmed by the DOC, a detainee had contracted coronavirus earlier in the day, the president of the city Correction Officers’ union March 18 called on the department to provide staff with additional tools, specifically heavy duty air-purifying respirators, to his members.  

The DOC’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, Peter Thorne, said that the uniformed member—identified by Elias Husamudeen, the head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, as a Rikers Island Correction Officer—"is assigned to a post that does not routinely include contact with people in custody and will not return to work until medically cleared per DOHMH guidance.”

First Inmate Case

The Officer was under medical care, Mr. Thorne said, and people “who had close contact with this employee are being identified and advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.” 

Mr. Husamudeen said the Officer worked security on Rikers Island at Gate 1, the second security checkpoint entering the island. 

The DOC later said that it had received confirmation from the Correctional Health Services (CHS) of the first case of the virus among the inmate population. 

“This detainee has been removed from the general population and is being closely monitored” by CHS, the department said.

DOC officials were working with CHS to identify and then notify persons who might have been in close contact with the inmate. 

Visits Suspended

The DOC suspended in-person visits starting March 18. While Mr. Husamudeen praised that move, he and Patrick Ferraiuolo, the president of the Correction Captains’ Association, said that while an adequate supply of supplies and equipment was imperative, the best plan of action was to separate incoming inmates from those who have been in jails for a period of time. 

Mr. Ferraiuolo said there were sufficient recently closed jail facilities on Rikers Island that could be reopened and dedicated to incoming detainees, such as the Eric M. Taylor Center. Correction staff would then be reshuffled so as to be dedicated solely to those facilities.

“We have the facilities, we have the revenues, we have the staff to do it,” he said March 19. “There’s no reason to house them in the general population...We should treat every single individual coming in like they have the virus. We shouldn't put inmates or staff at risk.”

Mr. Husamudeen was equally adamant that Correction Officers were in need of additional hardware—particularly respirators—to lessen their risk of contracting the virus. 

The respirators, bulky models costing about $700, are designed to provide “maximum operational flexibility to counter multiple threat scenarios, including chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological agents,” according to the manufacturer. 

A spokesman for the union said he believed 10,000 of the masks were needed, which would equate to a $7-million price tag. 

Mr. Husamudeen said the masks now being provided to Correction Officers are designed for a single eight-hour use. 

'Longer Shelf Life, Better'

“This particular mask has a much longer shelf life,” he said, notably since its filter component can be changed. “It’s much better at fighting the virus.” 

But he also called on the DOC to isolate new inmates. “This is common-sense, boots-on-the-ground types of ideas,” Mr. Husamudeen said. “Let’s limit the exposure. 

In response to an inquiry about moving detainees who might have had exposure to the virus, the department said that anyone coming into DOC custody undergoes medical screening, and that  corrections staff have the authority to refer any detainee, but particularly those with respiratory symptoms, to CHS.        

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