From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject 'It Spreads Like Wildfire': Coronavirus Comes to New York Prisons
Date March 26, 2020 12:03 AM
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[ Prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers can expect to
see a largely “uncontrolled, unflattened curve” relating to the
coronavirus outbreak, an epidemiology professor said.]
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'IT SPREADS LIKE WILDFIRE': CORONAVIRUS COMES TO NEW YORK PRISONS  
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Daniel A. Gross
March 24, 2020
The New Yorker
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_ Prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers can expect to see
a largely “uncontrolled, unflattened curve” relating to the
coronavirus outbreak, an epidemiology professor said. _

, Photograph by Mark Lennihan / AP / Shutterstock

 

Last week, Adam Roberts, who has been incarcerated in New York State
since 1999, began to prepare for the arrival of _covid_-19, the
respiratory infection caused by the novel coronavirus
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Facility, in Beacon. He began washing his hands more often and keeping
his distance from men in the mess hall; he noticed someone in a common
area using a TV remote through a plastic bag. Roberts has an
intolerance to dairy and worries about losing access to foods he can
eat, so he planned to buy as much instant ramen, tuna, mayonnaise,
peanut butter, and tea from the commissary as he could. “It seems
like things are slowly shutting down,” he told me on Thursday.
“Funny that prison may be safer than the outside—until, that
is, _covid_ inevitably finds its way in here. At which point it
spreads like wildfire.”

The coronavirus has now found its way into New York’s prison system.
On Sunday, the state’s Department of Corrections and Community
Supervision, or D.O.C.C.S., confirmed that two prisoners at Wende
Correctional Facility had tested positive for _covid_-19. (One of
them, according to multiple reports
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is the former movie producer Harvey Weinstein
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facility only recently after being convicted of rape.) Health
officials in Cayuga County announced that the coronavirus had infected
a man who had been incarcerated at Auburn Correctional Facility.
D.O.C.C.S. has also confirmed three cases of _covid_-19 in its ranks:
one officer at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, another at Shawangunk
Correctional Facility, and one civilian staff member in Albany.

_The New Yorker’s_ coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free
for all readers. [[link removed]]

“It is absolutely impossible to practice social distancing in
prison,” Laron Rogers, who is serving twenty-five years to life at
Sing Sing, wrote to me on Wednesday, a day after officials confirmed
that the Sing Sing officer had tested positive for _covid_-19. Rogers
learned about the positive test from his peers, not the prison
administration. “As you might imagine, we are extremely concerned
with the lack of information concerning a contingency plan,” he
said. “We all feel like it is only a matter of time before this
virus enters and spreads rapidly in here.” At the time, Rogers said,
many correctional officers were not wearing rubber gloves, even when
collecting large numbers of I.D. cards or patting men down for
contraband. (The D.O.C.C.S. did not respond to a request for comment
on this matter.)

Preparations for the coronavirus have now seeped into nearly every
aspect of life in state prisons, according to about a dozen
incarcerated sources in five different facilities. Ten days ago,
D.O.C.C.S. closed all its prisons to visitors—with the exception of
non-contact legal visits—and issued each prisoner five postage
stamps, two electronic messages, and one free phone call per week.
(Roberts had been expecting a visit from his cousins, their first in
more than a year.) Prisons are distributing bleach and have been
posting memos that encourage hand washing. But experts say that none
of these measures can prevent a widespread outbreak of _covid_-19.
“It’s nearly impossible to provide infection control in these
settings,” Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiology professor at Yale School
of Public Health, who has researched access to treatment for hepatitis
C in state prisons, told me. “If you wanted to set up a situation
that would promote rapid transmission of a respiratory virus, you
would say prison: it’s close quarters, unsanitary, individuals in
frequent contact.” Across the state, prisoners are trying to stand a
few feet apart in long lines and crowded mess halls; educational and
vocational programs have been cancelled—though some jobs have not.

“All programs have been cancelled except the Soap Shop,” Shakim
Allah, who has been incarcerated for forty-three years, wrote to me
from Great Meadow Correctional Facility, in Comstock. Earlier this
month, about a week after New York reported its first case
of _covid_-19, and when stores were beginning to run out of toilet
paper and hand sanitizer, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that
incarcerated workers had begun producing a state-branded hand
sanitizer, called NYS Clean. The soap shop is part of Corcraft, a
state entity that pays workers between sixteen and sixty-five cents
per hour, and has been operating around the clock at Great Meadow.
“There are major complaints about the conditions men are being
forced to work under as well as pay,” Allah told me. He said that
men are working eight-hour shifts and have been promised letters of
commendation from the Governor. Allah also alleged that some workers
have been unable to punch time cards, to record their hours worked,
have worked double shifts, or have worked on the expectation of future
pay. Until recently, alcohol-based hand sanitizer was not available in
state prisons, even to the workers who produced it; late last week, a
journalist asked
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about the issue, and D.O.C.C.S. announced that it would begin to
distribute sanitizer in common areas.

Victor Garcia, who is also incarcerated at Great Meadow, serving
fifty-five years to life, told me that fears of an outbreak have grown
by the day. He wrote that staff members had distributed spray bottles
of bleach and extra bars of soap; only two men were allowed to sit at
mess-hall tables that were previously used for four. “It seems like
the department is doing everything in its power to keep the virus from
entering and spreading,” he said. Still, he has been alarmed by news
reports about the rapid spread of _covid_-19, and worries about his
family, especially his ninety-six-year-old grandmother. “I have
never experienced this level of panic coming from our families,
corrections staff, government, and the media,” he told me.

At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the state’s largest
women’s prison, officials have been distributing bleach and telling
women to wash their hands, avoid groups and sick people, and cough
into a tissue; movement between housing units was cut off on March
17th, according to Misha Louis, a member of the prison’s Inmate
Liaison Committee. The restrictions initially caused an uproar, Louis
said, and some women experienced anxiety attacks. “We are keeping
each other strong,” she told me. Another woman at the prison, who
earns about a quarter per hour distributing bleach, said on March 20th
that most programs had closed but that general medical appointments
had not stopped, and that incarcerated women were still working at a
D.M.V. call center located at the prison. She had been working
overtime every day for a week. “I’m tired but I love my job,”
she told me. Women were eager to protect themselves by cleaning their
living spaces, the woman said, but some officers were allegedly
hoarding the bleach that her crew was distributing. “There’s an
unspoken understanding amongst us as inmates, too, that, if we were to
fall terribly ill, precious resources may not be ‘wasted’ to save
one of our lives,” she said.

When I asked D.O.C.C.S. about preparations for the coronavirus, a
spokesperson told me that every facility has an emergency control
plan, and that state prisons were used to dealing with infectious
diseases, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, influenza, and H.I.V./AIDS.
(All of these infections spread in different ways and at different
rates than the coronavirus, and can be treated with medication.) “At
all times, D.O.C.C.S. retains supplies, equipment and other resources
that can be readily available, if needed, to those impacted in
correctional facilities during the spread of an infectious disease,”
the spokesperson said. “Additionally, the Department has medical
staff specially trained in infection control employed in facilities
across the state.” According to the Correctional Association of New
York, which oversees D.O.C.C.S., emergency control plans are
considered security directives and are not available to the public.
(The association shared a hundred and seventy-five page D.O.C.C.S.
manual on infectious diseases, meant to guide employees on such
practices as personal hygiene, infection surveillance, disinfection
and decontamination, and the use of personal protective equipment. It
lists policies for the control of about twenty specific diseases.)

 

On Friday, I summarized my reporting for Gregg Gonsalves, the
epidemiologist, and asked him whether he considered the prison
system’s preparations sufficient. “You have a gaping wound and
you’re giving a Band-Aid,” he replied. Although the U.S. as a
whole may be able to flatten the curve
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the outbreak through social distancing, Gonsalves said, he expected to
see in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers a largely
“uncontrolled, unflattened curve,” even if the incarcerated try to
practice social distancing and have constant access to soap and hand
sanitizer. Oluwadamilola Oladeru, a resident at the Harvard Radiation
Oncology Program, who co-authored an op-ed
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with Gonsalves, on the threat that _covid_-19 poses to those who are
incarcerated, pointed out that, if the health system is overwhelmed,
people in prison may not only get sick from the coronavirus but may
also lose access to ongoing care for chronic conditions, such as
diabetes and respiratory illnesses. The U.S. prison
population currently includes
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seventy thousand people over the age of fifty-five, an age group that
is particularly vulnerable to _covid_-19.

“Sick inmates, elderly, and women who are not dangerous as well as
parole violators should be released,” Misha Louis wrote to me from
Bedford Hills. “That way they will not be exposed in large numbers
to the virus and take up hospital beds that the state does not have to
spare.” She is not alone in calling for these steps: in the past
week, activists
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defenders
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and prosecutors
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all advocated for decarceration to slow the spread of the pandemic.
Gonsalves suggested medical furlough for elderly and at risk prisoners
and the release of people near the end of their sentences. “You have
to reduce the population load to reduce the risk of infection,” he
said.

In Fishkill, Adam Roberts had as normal a weekend as he could: he
listened to coverage of _covid_-19 on the radio, cooked apple
turnovers, and watched long stretches of Animal Planet, which has
become one of his go-to distractions. No inmates have tested positive
at Fishkill, but D.O.C.C.S. told the prison’s Inmate Liaison
Committee that some men are under quarantine. For a few days now,
Roberts has been expecting the start of an outbreak. “I have to
believe it’s here,” he told me. “The numbers say it has to be
here.”

_Daniel A. Gross
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and radio producer in New York._

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