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How are jails dealing with coronavirus?

Nassau County Correctional Facility on Friday, March 11,

Nassau County Correctional Facility on Friday, March 11, 2016 in East Meadow. Credit: Howard Schnapp

In New York City, positive coronavirus tests among both inmates and corrections officers at Rikers Island have advocates for the incarcerated arguing that any inmates who can be released safely should be, lest an epidemic of illness sweep through the captive population.

In Nassau and Suffolk’s jails, though, the sheriffs of both counties say they believe recently adopted protocols are allowing them to continue to house their populations safely.

The Nassau County jail held 721 prisoners as of Monday, and newly appointed Sheriff James Dzurenda told The Point that about 75% are awaiting trial, while the rest are serving sentences of less than one year. The jail has a 1,500-prisoner capacity, but historically low crime rates and bail reform drove the numbers way down. 

Dzurenda said special procedures were in place, like isolating new prisoners away from the general population for 14 days, up from three days, cutting down on the number of prisoners taking recreation at once, and stopping visitors and volunteers from entering the premises.  One new inmate there tested positive but did so in an extended isolation that is part of the new protocol.

The inmate, who was diagnosed Sunday, is being treated at the Nassau University Medical Center. The 23 corrections officers believed to have had contact with him are in self-isolation, and can return to work next week if they continue to have no symptoms. Six prisoners also believed to have come into contact with the inmate are isolated, seven days into a 14-day quarantine.

The Nassau jail has 81 inmates aged 50 to 59, and 35 who are 60 years or older. Two inmates are immunocompromised, one of them badly enough to need special accommodations.

The Suffolk County jail, meanwhile, has had no positive tests of staff or inmates.

The jail has capacity for 1,843 inmates, but only houses 616 right now. Sheriff Errol Toulon said about two-thirds are generally pre-trial, with the rest post-conviction, and he said that he and Dzurenda have been in constant communication about how to react to the virus. New Suffolk prisoners are being isolated for 14 days and given surgical masks to wear, and Toulon said the cleaning regimen of the jail has been intensified significantly. Signs have also been posted in English and Spanish reminding prisoners to be serious about hygiene.

And at the Suffolk facility, most of the 98 prisoners over the age of 55 are in the same pod, reducing the risk of infection from other prisoners.

Toulon said most court hearings are now being handled via video-conferencing, and prisoners are being granted extra phone calls each week to make up for the lack of visits, which have been stopped completely at least until the end of the month.

And the prisoners are secluding themselves, as well. “We still have recreation scheduled, but there is a lot less participation,” Toulon said.