Hundreds of inmates and staff at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail have tested positive for novel coronavirus, but so far the problem has been kept to a minimum at Capital Region county jails.
County sheriffs and the corrections staffs are on the front lines of keeping the virus that causes serious respiratory illness COVID-19 out of their facilities, where it could spread quickly among staff and inmates. No local jails are allowing family or other visitors to see inmates, and many are giving corrections officers the option of using personal protective equipment while in the jail.
The state prison system has stopped taking new inmates as part of efforts to keep ill people out of the prisons. The Department of Corrections and Community Service on Wednesday dropped resistance and agreed that its corrections officers could wear personal protective masks and gloves, if they bought them themselves.
Local jails, however, don’t have the option of stopping intake of new inmates. “I’ve got to honor a judge’s remand order,” said Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino.
Counties can and have, however, imposed new health screening procedures at jails intended to keep someone who is sick from entering the general jail population. Visitors are prohibited, and programs that brought outside educators or others into the facilities have been suspended.
In most counties, jail personnel are taking the temperatures of all corrections staff upon arrival each day, as well as all new inmates coming into the facility. A fever is a telltale sign of the virus’ infection.
“About three weeks ago I shut down the main building, stopped visitation, and the front door is now locked 24/7,” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael H. Zurlo. “We take temperatures of everyone including staff when they come in. The inmates have [electronic] tablets to communicate with their families. We’ve taken all the necessary precautions to keep virus from coming in.”
The jail in the town of Milton has about 115 inmates, including two that Zurlo said are state-ready — meaning they’ve been sentenced by a County Court judge to state prison time, but have not been transported yet because of the state prison system’s freeze on admissions. The jail can house up to 195 inmates at full capacity.
Saratoga County, like other jails, has many fewer inmates than a year ago, thanks to the criminal justice reforms that took effect in January and are allowing many people who used to be in pre-trial detention to be released without bail pending trial or disposition of their cases.
Zurlo said masks are available to corrections officers and other staff, and cleaning supplies are available so that staff can clean their own areas. “We had a couple of scares where corrections officers were sick, but they tested negative,” Zurlo said. “I really thank our corrections officers. They’re top of the line.”
The Schenectady County Jail has suspended all visitation, and Dagostino said there are a number of new procedures at the jail, located in downtown Schenectady, and to date there have been no positive cases among inmates or staff. “So far, we’ve had the angels on our side,” he said.
Temperature-taking began about a month ago, along with new and rigorous twice-a-day cleaning of the facility, which has about 150 inmates but can hold up to 378. As in Saratoga County, bail reform means it is holding far fewer inmates than it did a year ago.
“The drop in inmate population has made it possible for us to deal more effectively with this,” said Dagostino, noting it means cells can be set aside for isolation.
Albany County has had some problems at the jail. A nurse at the county jail tested positive for the virus about 10 days ago. The jail isolated inmates the nurse had contact with. An Albany County sheriff’s deputy also tested positive for the virus, but has since recovered, Sheriff Craig Apple said last weekend.
Saratoga County as of Thursday had 139 confirmed COVID-19 cases, while Schenectady had 98 and Albany County had 238, according to local officials in each county.
The more rural counties to the immediate west have many fewer confirmed cases, but their jails are still taking precautions. Montgomery County as of Thursday had nine confirmed cases.
Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith said the county jail in Fultonville is being cleaned “top to bottom” twice a day, something he ordered several weeks ago. Staff are also being issued personal protection equipment to use while in the building.
Smth said everyone coming into the facility, whether inmate or staff, is being required to fill out a questionnaire every day about whether they have a fever, have been around anyone who is sick or anyone who has traveled. “We take their temperatures every day,” he said.
The jail has negative-pressure isolation cells to use if someone is ill, Smith said.
Fulton County so far has six confirmed COVID-19 cases, five of them diagnosed in the last couple of days. The jail in Johnstown is also taking precautions.
“We have completely stopped inmate visits except with attorneys, and are encouraging calls to attorneys with video visits,” said Sheriff Richard Giardino. “Video visits with families allowed. No positive cases.”
Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected]