Correction Department says NYC jails are prepared for a second wave of coronavirus despite concerns from union boss, and jails watchdog agency

By: 
CHELSIA ROSE MARCIUS

Commissioners of two city agencies leading efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus in jails told the City Council Monday they’re prepared to handle an outbreak if New York is hit with a second COVID-19 surge this winter — but not everyone was convinced.

Some of those attending the council’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting — including correction officers' union boss and members of the watchdog body tasked with overseeing the jails — voiced doubts about the city jails’ readiness, including adequate social distancing and PPE.

Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann and Correctional Health Services Commissioner Patsy Yang said their agencies jointly halted the spread of COVID-19 by mid-May, when officials identified the last confirmed case of the disease transmitted through the jails.

But Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio Jr. asserted he’s got little faith in their plan, arguing not enough was done in spring to protect the over 1,400 correction officers who contracted the virus.

“The reality is that the City of New York failed to do everything possible to keep my members from dying and from getting sick,” Boscio said, declaring the department didn’t provide officers adequate PPE or free testing for weeks, and noting some were forced to work 24 hours straight at the height of the pandemic.

“It took numerous officers getting sick and calling out sick and a lawsuit to finally make PPE distribution mandatory-some six to eight weeks into the pandemic,” he said. “That is inexcusable at best and borderline criminal at worse.”

Board of Correction Executive Director Margaret Egan also said the use of masks was a “critical area of concern,” noting board members have observed staffers and people in custody without masks as recent as July during their unannounced jail inspections.

“This is alarming that if in a confined space (and there’s) a second wave, we could be in for a problem if this is continuing,” said Council Member Robert Holden (D-Queens) of the board’s findings.

Correction Department and Correctional Health leaders defended their rigorous efforts, however, citing testing and lowering the jail population as having effectively curbed the spread.

City data shows that over 1,950 people have been released from the jails due to coronavirus concerns — including 296 people servicing city sentences of 90 days or less, 1,251 people accused of state parole violations and 411 people released through the courts, many of them pre-trial detainees — and over 5,000 people behind bars have been tested for the disease as of Sept. 16.

“Our ability to manage such a highly contagious virus in such a uniquely challenging setting speaks to the efficacy of our COVID -19 response strategy,” Yang said, noting the city’s new Pandemic Response Lab will help speed up test results and streamline the process for properly housing people in the jails.

“(We) have continued to plan and prepare for reemergence of the virus in the jails using our initial COVID-19 response as a blueprint for keeping patients and staff healthy and safe.”