New data released this week by the State Corrections Department showed that only around 14 percent of inmates have been tested for COVID-19 since the crisis began.
The low testing rate has occurred despite sizable outbreaks in several downstate prisons. A total of 17 people have died, while more than 600 COVID-19 infections have been detected in state prisons. New York has nearly 39,000 inmates spread across 52 correctional facilities.
“Ideally every single, not only inmate, but every single staff person in a congregate facility like that should be tested, with expeditious, regular testing,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of Columbia’s University Center for Disaster Preparedness.
He acknowledged the current nationwide testing slowdown, but said prisons like other congregate living facilities desperately need rapid point of care tests to assure the safety of residents over the long term.
“These facilities can really be hot zones for the spread of the coronavirus," he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified prisons and detention centers as being at high risk for virus transmission. As of July 7th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that absent contact tracing or in the event of infections, states should consider a broader testing strategy "beyond testing only close contacts within the facility to reduce the chances of a large outbreak."
Earlier this month, The Legal Aid Society criticized the state's lack of regular testing in state prisons.
“The refusal from DOCCS to follow CDC recommendations to protect people from contracting and spreading COVID-19 endangers the lives of all New Yorkers incarcerated in state prisons," Legal Aid said in a statement. "Governor Cuomo and DOCCS should stop risking the lives of incarcerated people and follow the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci and the CDC to adopt universal testing protocols for our clients and others who live and work in state prisons.”
Edward Mackenzie, 64, an inmate at the Adirondack Correctional Facility, said that he was tested once for the virus on June 28th and hasn't been retested since, even after a man a few cells down caught the virus and was put into isolation.
“I seen the nurse and I told her, I said ‘Listen you gotta retest all of us.' She says, ‘I’m just doing what I was told,'” he said.
Mackenzie, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that puts him at higher risk for severe illness from covid, arrived at the Adirondack facility in late June along with around 95 older inmates who were transferred without warning as part of the state’s efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Records show that only 3 people were tested for COVID-19 at Adirondack in the last two weeks.
Mackenzie, who is serving a life sentence for kidnapping and robbery, has been incarcerated for 28 years. He was denied parole in March but is scheduled to come before the parole board again in 2022, state corrections records show.
But given his health, he said, “I'm not so sure about that."
State officials have said they test people in corrections custody if they are exhibiting symptoms or if they have been exposed to someone who had the virus.
“All along we tested prisoners by the same standard as we tested people outside of prisons,” Melissa DeRosa, a top aide for Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a July 23rd press conference. “If you had come into contact with someone who was known to have coronavirus or if you were symptomatic, then you got a coronavirus test.”
Last week, state officials said they tested around 3,900 people incarcerated people over the age of 55, regardless of whether they had COVID-19 symptoms, and identified an additional 77 cases, most of which were asymptomatic. That puts the infection rate for older inmates at 1.9 percent, on par with the infection rate of the state as a whole.
Governor Andrew Cuomo congratulated Corrections Commissioner Anthony Annucci at a press conference, calling it a "job really well done."
The most recent virus casualty in state prison was Chitwae Se, 77, who died on July 22nd at Green Haven Correctional Facility. He was three years into a 15-year sentence for manslaughter after he was convicted for the bludgeoning death of his girlfriend in Queens in 2017.
Most of the 59 new COVID-19 infections over the last two weeks occurred at Green Haven and Fishkill Correctional Facility, both in Dutchess County, where 18 and 17 infections were found respectively.
But even at those two facilities, testing is still fairly limited, state data show. As of July 26, around 30 percent of the 1,322 inmates at Fishkill had been tested for COVID-19 and only 13 percent of the 1,726 inmates at Green Haven.
More than 1,300 Corrections Officers have contracted COVID-19, according to the state, and five have died from it.
Chris Moreau, the newly elected union representative for prisons in the mid-Hudson region, said that the Corrections Department has officers answer health questionnaires before shifts and has temperature checks twice during a 16-hour shift.
“The precautions they’re taking aren’t light by any way shape or form,” Moreau said.
Once during the course of the outbreak, the laboratory BioReference went to prisons and offered to test any Corrections Officer who wanted it, though the state has not mandated regular testing for them. Moreau could not say how many of the 20,000 officers statewide have been tested for the virus.
Despite the lack of testing, people incarcerated in New York’s prisons faired better than most other states in the country, with 4 deaths per 10,000 inmates, according to the Marshall Project which is tracking prison outbreaks in state and federal prisons.
In general, the disease appears to be waning in state prisons. In Sing Sing, for example, the state tested 193 inmates in the last two weeks and did not detect a single new infection.
At the height of the outbreak, the prison saw 43 cases of the virus and four deaths.
But critics say that the drop in infections have resulted despite insufficient testing.
“I don’t attribute it to the Department of Corrections measures because they didn’t take any measures,” said Jose Saldaña, who was incarcerated for 38 years becoming the director of Release Aging People in Prison campaign.
Saldaña said he keeps regular contact with inmates at multiple state facilities who still say they are not being tested unless they’re over the age of 55, even if they have been exposed to someone known to have the virus.
Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the Corrections Department said officials are working with the state Health Department to increase targeted testing inside state prisons and that they have emergency protocols in place to reduce the spread of the virus. These include requiring staff to wear masks and having masks available for inmates, as well as cleaning and sanitizing facilities more regularly. All visits to state prisons have been halted since mid-March.
Those who test positive must quarantine for at least two weeks.
Still, friends and family members have been left anxiously dreading the worst.
Theresa Grady spoke about her husband, Morris Grady. The 67-year-old is incarcerated at Green Haven and has diabetes and asthma, two pre-existing conditions that make the virus especially dangerous for him. He has been in state custody since 2007 for robbery and attempted murder charges.
“I worry that I might get a call one day that I’m not ready for," she said. “I stay worried on a daily basis, constantly worried."
She said she has broken down once or twice on the phone with her husband, only to have him respond with what feels like limited reassurance.
"He’s like, ‘I want you to know, I’m okay at this time,'" she said.