It’s easy enough to catch and spread the coronavirus even when we’re socially separating, wearing masks, limiting contact with sick individuals, avoiding vulnerable people like the elderly, and teaching our kids from home.
Imagine how easy it is to spread the disease in an enclosed environment with many people packed together, with forced proximity to others, often without sufficient ventilation and with less than ideal cleanliness, and applying the same degree of testing inside this space as is used to prevent the spread of the virus outside it.
That’s the situation inside New York’s jails and prisons, which are seeing a spike in coronavirus cases, most recently at the Elmira Correctional Facility in central New York and the Greene Correctional Facility in the Catskills.
While it might be difficult for some members of the public to muster up much sympathy for people who have been convicted of serious crimes, that opinion is not only inhumane but misguided.
First off, these inmates are people, not garbage to be tossed away.
Second, these incarcerated individuals have families and friends who care about them and whose lives have been significantly affected in a negative way by their incarceration. They are innocent victims of the spread of coronavirus within prison walls.
Third, covid within prisons doesn’t just affect prisoners.
It affects correctional officers and other staff members inside prisons who interact with prisoners, as well as individuals who were once in prison but who’ve since completed their sentences or been released on parole.
According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which oversees state correctional facilities, 1,443 covid cases were reported among staff as of Friday.
Another 1,336 cases have been reported among incarcerated individuals, and 105 cases have been reported among parolees.
Through Friday, five staff members have died from the virus, 18 inmates have died and four parolees have died.
Because of the close proximity of inmates in prison and the enclosed, suffocating physical environment, it’s easy for this disease to spread quickly if it gets hold.
Outside of prison, the country is seeing a significant spike in cases as colder weather arrives and more of us retreat indoors.
Imagine what’s going to happen in prisons and jails, where it’s much easier to spread the virus.
The New Yorkers United for Justice group, which advocates on behalf of prisoners, says the state isn’t doing enough to prevent the spread, accusing DOCCS of “ignoring super spreader conditions that are the everyday reality in prisons across New York State.”
Earlier this year, family members of inmates and corrections officers called on the state to ensure prisons and jails wouldn’t face the same staffing shortages, barriers to social distancing and unsafe rationing of protective gear that plagued the first wave of covid during the spring.
And unions representing prison employees, along with prisoner advocacy groups, urged the state to require regular covid testing, improve ventilation systems in prisons, increase funding and hiring for health care services within prisons, and to make sure all guards and inmates are required to wear masks.
The United for Justice group issued a press release last week saying that with the oncoming flu season, and an inadequate number of flu vaccinations being made available in prisons, the spread of illness within prison walls is going to be exacerbated.
The corrections department says on its website that the testing process for those inside prisons is the same for those in the community, and that its health professionals are following the guidelines set by the state Department of Health in identifying potential cases through symptoms and medical evaluations.
Those suspected of having the virus are isolated for 14 days, monitored and tested, the department says.
Like nursing homes, prisons are as close to we have in this state to incubators for the easily spread coronavirus.
These facilities can’t be treated the same as the outside world.
Special attention needs to be paid, and special extra efforts made, to keep the virus from reaching those inside and from spreading quickly to staff and residents.
The recent spikes in Elmira and Greene County are a warning sign of what’s potentially to come, and a message to state lawmakers, corrections officials and the governor that they need to do more to prevent a massive outbreak of disease and death this winter.