ALDEN, N.Y. — One place of growing concern about the coronavirus outbreak is New York’s jails and prisons. They are places where social distancing can be a challenge and that employ thousands of workers in Western New York.
Wende Correctional Facility is Alden is becoming somewhat of a ”hot spot,” according to Mark Deburgomaster, western region vice president of NYSCOPBA, the union representing corrections officers. He says dozens of officers have already been placed under quarantine amid concern over possible exposure.
“As of this morning it’s 42 officers, two sergeants and one lieutenant… Just out of that facility,” Deburgomaster told WGRZ-TV.
According to Deburgomaster there may be one hundred corrections personnel in the same boat, just in the western region of New York.
Sources say many of the potential exposures at Wende can be traced to two inmates recently brought in, one being former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who came in from Rikers Island in New York City last week and who a number of sources say tested positive for COVID-19.
More action needed
Having earlier suspended prison visits, on Monday the state finally addressed another concern raised by the union — the transfer of inmates from facility to facility (except in emergencies).
“They did suspend it for today, but from indications we’re being given right now they’re still looking at putting buses back on the road as soon as tomorrow," Deburgomaster said. "Whether that’s going to be for just essential moves, we haven’t gotten clarification. But I do know the transport buses are being told they will run tomorrow….at what levels or numbers we haven’t been informed of yet.”
While the state has taken some steps to try and flatten the curve within the walls, the union says it’s not enough.
The union says that ceasing construction projects involving outside contractors, each of whom — along with their equipment and vehicles — need to be checked for contraband, could help. Especially if staffing levels become dire.
“I do know that if they shut down the construction alone, that would free up massive numbers of officers that are currently taking care of construction, when they could be actually be better used on the galleries,” said Deburgomaster. “This could also slow the number of people coming into the facilities and reduce possible exposures.”
In addition, the union is recommending that transfers of “state ready” prisoners, held in local jails after being convicted for crimes, should stay where they are for the foreseeable future, especially because county lockups are less populated due to the state’s bail reform laws.
“If there was someone in Westchester that tested positive, we don’t want to have that somebody coming in from Westchester into the state system. And this is the same thing that happened, I believe working with background information, that happened with this Weinstein deal," said Michael Power, the statewide president of NYSCOPBA.
“We’re now worried about the number of officers being quarantined which vastly effect our staffing abilities and to provide the services that are needed,” said Power, who also noted the lack of personal protective equipment for corrections officers, who work in places where social distancing is a challenge.
“We don’t have the personal protection equipment in place to effectively prevent our members from catching this, and then bringing this outside the facility to their homes," he said.