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State Announces Prison Restrictions As Greene County Officials Seek Further Actions

Local officials speak at Wednesday's press conference outside the Greene County office building
Lucas Willard
Local officials speak at Wednesday's press conference outside the Greene County office building

Visitors will now be restricted at two upstate New York correctional facilities after recent COVID outbreaks among inmate populations.

Effective 3 p.m. Wednesday, visitation was suspended at New York’s Greene and Elmira Correctional Facilities. Transfers in and out of the facilities have also been suspended.

At Greene, about 100 inmates and 26 employees of a prison population of more than 1,000 tested positive for COVID-19 over the last two weeks.

Wednesday’s announcement by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision comes as local leaders have been calling for action. They organized a press conference Wednesday outside the Greene County office building in Catskill.

Shaun Groden is the Greene County Administrator. He’s worried about community spread.

“Terrified. We just had to close the school! I’m not a believer in Zoom education for youngsters.”

The increase in cases linked to Greene Correctional Facility forced the closure of the Greenville Elementary School and also has delayed the reopening of movie theaters and event venues – something that was set to happen this Friday.

Groden and others have a list of four demands, compiled before Wednesday’s visitation announcement. The list includes providing county health officials with DOCCS’ COVID information to facilitate contact tracing, ensuring all inmates being released test negative for the coronavirus and to regularly test correctional staff, notifying the county when infected staff are released, and ensuring tests processed by the state are turned around quickly through a “hot spot” designation.

Mike Powers, President of the NYSCOBPA union, which represents corrections officers, said the state’s restrictions are a start. 

“They’re not quite to our standards but it’s a good starting point. And we’re in a better position now then we were yesterday.”

But officials wanted action sooner.

Pat Linger chairs the Greene County legislature and is also the town supervisor for New Baltimore. He said concerns about COVID-19 in the jail were brought forward two weeks ago. He said the issue was raised with the governor’s office and through the Capital Region COVID-19 response control room.

Linger says throughout the pandemic, there’s been a good response from the state through the control rooms.

“This particular issue, we’ve just not had good response from. Positive or negative. Just…almost no response.”

New York State Assemblyman Chris Tague, a Republican from the 102nd District, praised the state’s COVID-19 response under Governor Andrew Cuomo early on, particularly through conference calls with stakeholders that included state lawmakers.  

“Then he came up with…he changed things to these control room boards and cut the state legislators, pretty much, out of the whole picture. And we’re the ones who are fielding the calls. We’re the ones…when somebody has a problem, they call our office,” said Tague.

Announcing the new rules for Greene and Elmira, DOCCS said in a statement:

“The Department takes seriously its duty to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those that work and live in our correctional facilities.  During this difficult time, the Department is appreciative of everyone’s patience and understanding as we continue to face this virus together.”

Statewide, the Department says 18 inmates and five staffers have died of the virus. Nearly 1,000 inmates and more than 1,400 staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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