A prison employee stands guard at the Clinton Correctional Facility...

A prison employee stands guard at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., on June 10, 2015. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has resisted calls to grant early release to state prison inmates to reduce fatalities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, despite reports of 139 inmates and nearly 600 correction employees testing positive — and four deaths.

But actions by two neighboring states might pressure New York to change course, activists say.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey became the latest states to announce they will release prison inmates who have health issues, committed nonviolent crimes and are near their release date anyway, to stop the spread of the virus. In some cases, inmates will be offered a temporary reprieve -- house arrest or parole — with the possibility of returning to prison once a state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration ends.

Activists in New York are urging Cuomo to do the same.

“We think the only way to manage COVID-19 in prison is to let people out,” said Stefen Short, who works on prisoners’ rights with the Legal Aid Society, which represents indigent clients. The group sent a list to Cuomo of 105 prisoners it says are medically vulnerable or who just have months left to serve and should be released.

Meanwhile, prison guards say they are concerned about exposure. They note prisons are not in “lock down,” mode, which severely restricts movements, but a sort of “lock down light” which minimizes movements and rations the number of people in an area at a time.

Twice, the union representing New York guards has written the state to ask for personal protection equipment made available for all staff, not just those working in quarantine areas.

As of Monday, 581 employees of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision have tested positive for the virus, the agency said — including union president Michael Powers.

One staff member and three inmates have died. One of the inmate deaths occurred at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Westchester County. Officials haven’t disclosed details on the others.

Cuomo has released about 700 inmates from county and local jails. That came after New Jersey announced it was releasing about 1,000 local inmates.

Now, New York is still holding off on similar actions with state prisons, which hold about 43,000 inmates.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said his executive order would apply to about 1,800 inmates at state prisons.

“We must reduce our inmate population to be able to manage this virus,” Wolf said last week, according to Philadelphia media outlets. “Without this temporary program, we are risking the health, and potentially lives, of employees and inmates.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said release there would be granted to “certain low-risk individuals.”

“Social distancing is extremely hard to accomplish in a prison setting,” Murphy said, according to reports. “Allowing some of our most vulnerable individuals who do not pose a public safety threat to temporarily leave prison will protect both their health and the health of those working in our correctional facilities."

Elsewhere, inmates last week rioted at a Kansas state prison where 28 have tested positive for the virus. 

Cuomo, at news conferences, hasn’t indicated whether he was considering early release of state prison inmates. He has said the Corrections Department has protocols for dealing with such emergencies but hasn’t elaborated.

On its website, the agency says it previously has successfully managed infectious outbreaks, such as tuberculosis, AIDS, and hepatitis C.” It says it has a pandemic protocol specifically for COVID-19 and tailored for each prison.

The agency has halted all transfers of inmates, save for medical reasons. It also is not taking inmates from county facilities. While visitation is halted, it says it’s providing inmates with 5 stamps for letters per week and two free 30-minute phone calls during the pandemic.

Quarantined prisoners are supplied with surgical masks. The rest may use state-issued handkerchiefs. Nonessential staff are staying home.

Prisoners’ rights groups say many programs have been suspended as well as congregant religious services. While being out of the general public would reduce risk for inmates, being in such close quarters means an outbreak could occur quickly, the advocates say.

“We’re concerned DOCCS is going to be overwhelmed by this outbreak,” said Jennifer Scaife, head of the Correctional Association of New York State, a prisoners’ rights group, referring to the state agency. She worries inmates will be overlooked when it comes to protecting New Yorkers.

“Incarcerated people often fall to the back of the line for sympathy,”

Scaife said.

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