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LI jail officials mobilize to protect inmates, public from coronavirus

Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead in November

Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead in November 2015. There have been no cases of coronavirus reported in Suffolk or Nassau jails, according to authorities, but public health experts say the additional steps are necessary Credit: James Carbone

Long Island jail officials are increasing medical screenings, scrubbing buses and holding cells, and distributing hand sanitizer to prevent coronavirus from spreading through their facilities and infecting staff and inmates. 

There have been no cases of coronavirus reported in Suffolk or Nassau jails, according to authorities, but public health experts say the additional steps are necessary because correctional facilities can serve as petri dishes for infectious diseases. More than a thousand inmates are currently housed in Long Island jails.

Correctional facilities are especially vulnerable because inmates share tiny cells with toilets, travel together to court in crowded buses or vans and wait for their appearances before a judge in cramped holding rooms, officials and jail experts said.

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, which operates jails in Riverhead and Yaphank that house about 670 inmates, has barred inmates from hugging or kissing family members and other visitors. 

“We need to get ahead of it,” Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said. “If that virus gets in a jail, it can spread rapidly. If this gets into the jail, it could impact my staff and the sheriff’s office operations.” 

Officials at the Nassau County Correctional Center in East Meadow, like their counterparts in Suffolk, have been aggressively sanitizing their facilities in recent weeks. Jail staff in both counties have also beefed up screenings of visitors and inmates, asking them if they have any symptoms associated with coronavirus or if they have recently traveled to severely-impacted countries such as China or Italy. 

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Jail officials said they are also taking cues from the federal Centers for Disease Control, the New York State Department of Health and county health officials. 

“This situation is fluid and evolving on a daily basis,” said Capt. Michael Golio of the Nassau County Sheriff’s Department. “We will be adapting and revising our procedures as circumstances dictate.” 

Law-enforcement officials across Long Island have been addressing the coronavirus outbreak by providing protective equipment and training to police officers and civilian employees. Suffolk police equipped patrol cars with gloves, goggles, masks and gown last month, and they are instructing 911 operators to ask callers if they have symptoms of the disease or have traveled to impacted nations, Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said. 

Another Suffolk police official, Lt. Anthony Calandrillo, told the Suffolk Legislature’s public safety committee Thursday that the department has replenished its stock of supplies with asset forfeiture funds. 

The Nassau County police commissioner said officers and medics will also be equipped with personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, as well as hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

Jails and prisons — like other closed, crowded spaces such as cruise ships, homeless shelters and nursing homes — are especially challenging in the wake of an infectious disease epidemic, according to Dr. Lipi Roy, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and the former chief of addiction medicine for New York City jails. Hundreds of cases of coronavirus have been reported in correctional facilities in China, while Iran recently temporarily released 54,000 inmates because of coronavirus fears. 

Many people held in jails, which typically hold those awaiting trial or serving short sentences, and prisons, which usually house inmates already convicted of crimes, already suffer from chronic health problems and have not had access to regular medical attention, Roy said. 

Jails pose more health challenges than prisons, Roy said, because their populations are so fluid.

“People are constantly cycling in and out of jails,” Roy said. “The average stay at Rikers Island is 10 or 11 days but some stay 24 hours or less. There is this constant flow of staff and visitors. The medical staffs are often substandard and understaffed. It creates a perfect breeding ground for disease.” 

Soap and other hygiene products are often not available at some jails, and hand sanitizer may be treated as contraband — although not in Nassau and Suffolk — because of its high alcohol content. Golio said officials at the Nassau jail, which has averaged 750 to 800 inmates a day since the beginning of the year, has distributed additional hand sanitizer throughout the facility and placed sanitizing sprayers at various locations for use by staff. 

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is barred in New York City jails, and officials do not have any plans to change the policy, according to Avery Cohen, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. “There is ample soap and water provided,” she wrote in an email. 

Jail officials in Suffolk and Nassau have also distributed personal protective equipment — gloves, masks, robes and goggles — to staff members. 

“We are communicating all of our safety and prevention measures to our staff,” Golio said. “We are seeking and receiving input from our staff regarding those safety prevention measures.” 

Toulon’s office announced Monday that it is immediately suspending “contact visits,” which means inmates and visitors will be barred from kissing or embracing. Visitors and inmates will instead have to meet in booths, separated by glass partitions. 

Toulon’s office has also canceled visits from high school students participating in its Youth Enlightenment Seminar, which gives teens an opportunity to visit a jail and see what life is like behind bars. 

In Suffolk, new admissions to jails will be segregated for 14 days from the rest of the population. That way, Toulon said, officials can monitor inmates for symptoms of the respiratory disease, and they can also track those who have had contact with a potentially infected person. 

New inmates to the Nassau County Correctional Center have long been held in specialized housing for at least 72 hours until they have been examined and cleared by medical personnel, Golio said. 

“During the initial holding period all inmates have interaction with facility health services staff,” Golio said. “All inmates, at any time, have the ability to access the facility health services system.” 

Union leaders representing jail staffers in both counties say they have been pleased with the response from the sheriff’s offices. Brian Sullivan, president of the Nassau Sheriff’s Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said he has been impressed with how proactive Sheriff James Dzurenda has been since county executive appointed him earlier this month. 

Louis Viscusi, president of the Suffolk Corrections Officer Association, said he is also satisfied with the response from the sheriff’s office. 

“It is so important for them to get this right, and I do appreciate what they have been doing,” Viscusi said.

Officials said the new measures will stay in place until the crisis subsides.

“I know we are inconveniencing people but this is not punitive,” Toulon said. “This is about protecting health.”

With Rachelle Blidner and Matthew Chayes

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