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Inmates' advocates call on Nassau to release the COVID-19-vulnerable

The Nassau County jail in East Meadow.

The Nassau County jail in East Meadow. Credit: AllislandAerial.com/Kevin P. Coughlin

Long Island advocates for the incarcerated rallied outside the Nassau Correctional Center on Friday, calling on county officials to release inmates who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus from the East Meadow jail.

Ten advocates who participated in a news conference outside the jail — while practicing social distancing — also demanded increased testing for inmates and urged officials to take additional steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the facility.  Activists and inmates’ relatives, meanwhile, honked horns and chanted as they cruised past the jail along Carmen Avenue in two dozen cars.

“What is happening to provide care and safety for those inside the jails, those who work in the jails?” asked rally organizer Serena Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women and Children, a social services agency that works with incarcerated women.

Nassau Sheriff James Dzurenda said his office posted a memo earlier this month on its website that details the steps it is taking to protect inmates and staff and to prevent the spread of the virus, including aggressive cleaning, segregating new admissions and the construction of an infirmary for inmates infected with COVID-19. 

Dzurenda said his agency is already taking many of the steps the protesters have demanded, and is following guidelines issued by the state Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control.

“I am really comfortable we are doing the best we can,” Dzurenda said. 

Public health officials say jails and prisons can serve as incubators for infectious diseases because inmates, correction officers and staff often share crowded and unsanitary spaces. Thirty-three Nassau correction officers who tested positive for the coronavirus are on sick leave, Dzurenda said, while an additional 60 who tested positive have been cleared and returned to work. Eighteen inmates who tested positive remain in isolation, while 26 who had tested positive have recovered and have returned to the general population.

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One inmate held in Suffolk County jails has tested positive, Sheriff Errol Toulon said Friday. Twenty-one correction officers, four deputies and one civilian employee have also tested positive. 

Liguori said some inmates have told advocates that they have been denied access to a nurse. Dzurenda said that is not true. Nurses visit housing units several times a day, he said, and inmates can put their names on a sick call list to receive medical attention.

“If an inmate is sick or has signs/symptoms of COVID-19, they have numerous times throughout each day to notify the medical department staff and see a nurse,” Dzurenda said. “The nursing staff treat this very seriously and are taking the requests at a high priority during this pandemic.”

Dzurenda said prosecutors and courts, not correction officials, determine who can be released from jail. But Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County New York Civil Liberties Union, called on him during Friday’s protest to work with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and District Attorney Madeline Singas to identify at-risk inmates who could be released from the East Meadow jail, including pregnant women, people suffering from medical conditions and seniors. 

“I am very sure whatever they are in here for does not call for a death sentence,” Gottehrer said. 

Dzurenda said he and Toulon have joined together with correction officials in Westchester to form the COVID-19 Regional Jail Working Group to share ideas and best practices about protecting staff and inmates. 

He said it is important to protect his jail population not only to keep inmates safe, but the entire county as well.

“Whatever I do for the inmates, the staff benefits and so do their families and communities,” Dzurenda said. “I have to do things extremely well because this affects my family, too.”


 

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