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Judge rules against freeing inmates in 2 Suffolk jails amid COVID-19 concerns

A judge said Sheriff Errol Toulon and his

A judge said Sheriff Errol Toulon and his staff had taken steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in their jails The Suffolk sheriff is shown at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue in 2018. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

A judge denied a bid last week by the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County to free about 120 inmates over coronavirus fears, in part because steps taken by Sheriff Errol Toulon and his staff to mitigate the spread of the deadly virus in their jails have been “remarkably successful.”

State Supreme Court Justice Mark Cohen noted in his April 9 order that just one inmate had tested positive in the Riverhead and Yaphank facilities operated by the sheriff’s office. No other inmates have tested positive since then, according to Toulon’s spokeswoman Kristin MacKay.

“This supports the plain conclusion that at least at this point, these extensive efforts have been remarkably successful in mitigating any spread of the virus to those in custody of the sheriff’s department,” Cohen said.

Sixteen correction officers and two deputies have tested positive for the virus that has infected nearly 50,000 across Long Island, MacKay said.

“We are able to mandate safeguards in a controlled environment that would not be feasible in the community at large and provide ready access to medical care both on site and at local hospitals as needed,” Chief Michael Sharkey of the sheriff’s office said.

Legal Aid attorneys asked the judge to release the inmates in late March, arguing that some of the 120 clients, who were being held on probation violations, drug offenses and nonviolent crimes, are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because they are seniors or suffer from preexisting health issues.

 Papers filed by Legal Aid say the inmates have not been issued adequate personal protective equipment and are forced to live in filthy and unsanitary conditions. Some have less than two months remaining on their sentences. 

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“These are not violent criminals; they are people serving short jail sentences for drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses,” Legal Aid of Suffolk County said in a statement.

Legal Aid attorneys, according to the statement, have interviewed three dozen clients who told them of “questionable practices with regard to cleanliness and social distancing” and that symptomatic inmates have been refused medical care.

 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. 

Toulon said last week the steps his office had taken to protect inmates include segregating new admissions from the general population for 14 days, ordering correction officers to wear personal protective equipment and having their temperatures taken before they enter jail facilities. Inmates have been issued cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer. Jail officials ordered inmates in recent days to wear masks, Sharkey said.

There are about 530 inmates in the Riverhead and Yaphank jails, MacKay said. About 360 of those have not been convicted.

MacKay said Suffolk freed about 15 parolees about a week and a half ago.

 Defense lawyers have been successful in suing to free inmates in other jails, including in New York City.

On Monday, the Legal Aid Society of New York announced it had secured the release of 51 inmates being held on noncriminal, technical parole violations at Rikers Island who were at high risk for contracting the virus. Hundreds of inmates held at Rikers Island and other New York City correction facilities have been released since the start of the pandemic.

Appearing on “Fox and Friends” early Wednesday, Toulon said the infected inmate was hospitalized for a couple of days and is now back in jail. Inmates who had been near him have been quarantined.

Toulon said Wednesday that inmates in Suffolk shouldn't be freed.

"They have committed crimes. They are awaiting trial," he said during his Fox interview. "They're still innocent until proven guilty, but I think that we're doing a good enough job that they should stay where they're at."

And, he said, "If you put them out into the street, especially with the pandemic issues that we're currently facing, they will then have an opportunity to contract the virus."

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