ALBANY — The spreading of the COVID-19 contagion is altering the way the state is supervising convicted felons who have been released on parole.
With the virus now infecting people in almost every county of New York, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision issued instructions to parole officers Thursday to suspend gathering urine samples from the parolees they monitor.
"Effective immediately, in response to the local and national threat to public health and safety from the COVID-19 virus, all parolee drug/alcohol testing is temporarily suspended until further notice," Ana Enright, the agency's deputy commissioner for community supervision, said in a memorandum sent to parole officers.
"The health and well being of our employees, the parolee population, and the general public, continues to be of paramount concern," Enright added in the document, a copy of which was obtained by CNHI.
A second directive from the agency imposed a temporary stop on the transfer of inmate cases from one parole office to another "absent exigent circumstances."
The same agency that monitors parolees also runs the state prison system, which is now grappling with one infected inmate at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora and two at Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County.
CNHI reported this week that one of the latter inmates is notorious rapist and former film producer Harvey Weinstein, who made international headlines after several women alleged he sexually accosted them.
Of the 29,000 people employed by DOCCS, 40 have tested positive for COVID-19, officials said.
An outbreak has also sickened at least six dozen prisoners at Rikers Island, a New York City jail that holds defendants being prosecuted in local courts as well as some parolees facing revocation proceedings that could result in their return to the state prisons.
Wayne Spence, president of the New York State Public Employees Federation, said he was pleased DOCCS opted to suspend drug/alcohol testing of parolees, suggesting the new directive is consistent with guidance from public health professionals that social distancing helps to curb the infection's spread.
In an illustration of how the pandemic is causing a new look at criminal justice policies, Spence last year lobbied vociferously against Albany legislation aimed at stopping the return to prison of parolees who violated the conditions of their release in ways that stopped short of serious offenses.
In a full reversal of that position, Spence told CNHI he now believes there should be a temporary moratorium on the pursuit of "technical" violations that could send a parolees back to prison, unless they pose a danger to themselves or to the public.
"These aren't normal times," Spence said, citing what he called the growing health threat to his union members who work in communities, prisons and secure psychiatric facilities.
He noted he has received reports from some parole officers that they do not have adequate protective garb, such as latex gloves, in dealing with the parolees they supervise.
Spence said he believes it would be prudent for parole officers to exercise discretion and caution in dealing with parolees so that they do not put themselves, co-workers, nurses, court personnel and corrections officers in danger.
"We could end up exposing the nurses, who are already dealing with short staffing in the prisons," Spence said.
One of the biggest infection clusters in the nation is at Rikers Island, which has become the focus of criminal justice reform activists pushing for major reductions in the population of incarcerated people.
"As the virus spreads like wildfire through Rikers Island," said Lisa Schreibersdorf, director of Brooklyn Defender Services, "we worry that every hour that passes brings us closer to disaster and death, whether inside the facilities or shortly after release." Those infected by the virus include 45 staffers of the New York City jail system.
The union for state corrections officers, the New York State Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association, has been urging the state to relax rules barring the security staffers from wearing protective masks on the job.
Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said he agrees those officers deserve to have the option of wearing the masks on the job, suggesting that DOCCS acquire "a massive supply when they become available."
In response to CNHI, a DOCCS spokeswoman, Rachel Connors, released a prepared statement.
"DOCCS continues to evaluate all options in response to this public health crisis while preserving public safety," she said.
Regarding offices and other work sites, the statement continued: "DOCCS has worked with each of our landlords to ensure that the cleaning protocols are followed under the "Office of General Services guidelines, including increasing frequency throughout offices especially high risk areas and issued appropriate protocols on how to clean vehicles."
Parole, now known as the Community Supervision Bureaus, "have been provided additional supplies with direction on how to continue ordering supplies. As noted above, each community supervision office has also been provided with hand sanitizer, as well as latex gloves.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.