Early this year, I wrote an Op-Ed entitled "A new world of public safety is upon us."

Little did I realize what would be upon us; this initial Op-Ed focused on the changes in bail reform that lowered the jail population significantly. This reduction in population brought on the knee-jerk reaction to question minimum staffing levels from certain Westchester County legislators.

No one could have predicted the life-altering changes that would come in March and April of 2020. Since the start of this COVID-19 pandemic, Westchester COBA has continued to work together with the Correction Department, the County Executive and his team, and the Department of Health to implement safety measures, ensure the use of personal protective equipment, and minimize the spread of this disease so we can keep our officers, their families and the inmate population as safe as possible.

Some of these additional safety measures include increasing cleaning crews to decontaminate, social distancing the inmate population, and altering new admission protocols and housing locations to minimize the introduction and spread of this highly contagious disease into the petri-dish environment known as jail.

Savings Over Safety

As recently as October, County Legislator Damon Maher, during a Budget Committee-Capital Projects meeting, brought up an audit report that was done recently in Ulster County to evaluate the lower population number and petition the state to reduce requirements. Legislator Maher, as he has done in the past, has harped on lowering the minimum-staffing standards, with his main focus of the inquiries solely on saving money. To bring this up in the midst of a pandemic could be kindly called shortsighted at best. Does Legislator Maher, and any of the other legislators asking for decreased staffing levels, even care about the health and safety of the inmate population or correctional or civilian staff? While many other correctional facilities have had fatalities to all of the aforementioned staff and population, due to Westchester's safety measures based upon the current staffing levels, fortunately we have not.

COVID-19 has negatively affected not only my members but their loved ones as well. Our children are learning from laptops in makeshift "living-room classrooms" while many of us are being forced to work overtime to safely protect the jail.

On Oct. 15, the Federal Government ended an agreement with the Westchester County Jail, stating that it had met conditions to improve the treatment of inmates. In a public statement, the officers of the Westchester County Jail were commended along with Commissioner Joseph K. Spano and his staff by County Executive George Latimer.

"No one is forgotten in our County, and this work is just more proof," Latimer said in a statement. On Nov. 5, Commissioner Spano stated after the department earned its fifth re-accreditation. "The successful ACA reaccreditation audit combined with the Department's other unique national certifications is part of what contributes to our reputation as a national leader in the correctional space—something we are very proud of."

These accolades are great to hear, but as the backbone of the Westchester County Jail, our Corrections Officers, deserve hazard pay! We have worked through COVID, contracted COVID, and returned back to work from COVID. We put our safety and that of our families at risk on a daily basis. We continue to work through these unique challenges in an enclosed jail setting. Despite these risks, as essential employees, Westchester County Correction Officers proudly remain on the front lines of this battle, working in close quarters, continuing to ensure public safety on a 24/7 basis.

Editor's note: Neil Pellone is president of the Westchester Correction Officers Benevolent Association. 

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