ALBANY — The threat of infectious disease inside prisons underscores the need for oversight of the medical care offered by the state Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision, according to legislation awaiting action by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
While the state Department of Health is authorized to monitor the care provided by hospitals throughout the state, it lacks the power to oversee prison infirmaries where inmates get treated when sick or injured.
"We have a constitutional obligation to protect the health of the people we have in custody," said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan.
Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, authored the bill that would give the state Department of Health oversight over infectious disease policies and practices at prisons and jails in New York.
While the legislation was approved in July by both chambers of the Legislature, Cuomo's office has not yet asked to have the bill sent to the governor's desk for review.
Gottfried said major outbreaks of COVID-19 infections this month at the maximum security Elmira and Greene correctional facilities have given the legislation new urgency.
"Our jails and our prisons operate with almost no oversight (of their medical clinics), and that endangers the corrections officers and the other staff working in the prisons, and it endangers the communities where the staff people go home to and the communities the inmates ultimately go home to when they are released," Gottfried said.
Gottfried said Cuomo's health agency has expressed reservations about the legislation, contending it will saddle the bureaucracy with new costs.
But as a result of legislation signed into law in 2009 by then-Gov. David Paterson, the Health Department does have oversight over prison protocols for HIV and Hepatitis C. Gottfried said he believes it will not significantly impact the health agency if is required to provide oversight for the treatment of all infectious diseases within prisons.
Contacted by CNHI, a Cuomo administration spokesman, Freeman Klopott, said of the legislation: "We will review it."
One of the advocacy organizations backing the measure, the Correctional Association of New York, noted that a survey of inmates in 2019 found that 74% of those who responded indicated they were unable to get medical attention when they needed it.
"Increased oversight of medical services is the first step in ensuring adequate access to care," the association said in endorsing the measure.
A second group backing the legislation, the Legal Action Center, said correctional health and community health are "inextricably linked," pointing out the toll the pandemic has taken on members of minority groups.
According to data released Wednesday by DOCCS, a total of 1,265 state prison inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus since March. Several hundred of those infections were documented this month as the virus raged through the Elmira and Greene prisons. Clinton, Cayuga and Sing Sing have also experienced an increase in infections recently, according to The Legal Aid Society, which is urging Cuomo to commute the sentences of "vulnerable" inmates because of the risk of infection.
“The second wave of COVID-19 has reached New York’s prison system, and our clients are defenseless against the virus, particularly because DOCCS has proven itself unable to implement an adequate COVID-19 mitigation strategy,” said Stefen Short, supervising attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society.
According to DOCCS, 2,974 inmates have been released early because of the pandemic. The agency has said its policies have been based on scientific data and guidance from the state Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control.
A total of 18 inmates have died from the contagion since March.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org