Written by Joe Mahoney (CNHI) in the Press-Republican on April 1, 2020

ALBANY — State corrections and parole officers can now wear protective masks inside the state prisons following a concerted push by labor unions, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-North Country, and Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, CNHI confirmed Wednesday.

The move by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision marks a sharp policy shift after its initial refusal to allow the prison staffers to wear the masks ignited a clamor of protest from the New York State Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association.

The leader of that union, Michael Powers, said this week he has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The new policy was confirmed by both the corrections union and the Public Employees Federation.

A spokesman for NYSCOPBA, Jim Miller, said, the state prisons ageny advised the union Wednesday that its members would be allowed to use either an N95 respirator or surgical-type mask to minimize their exposure to the virus and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We are satisfied that they finally recognized the importance that all front-line personnel need to protect themselves during this crisis,” Miller said. “NYSCOPBA is committed to working with the State to promote safe and healthy working conditions and is in the process of purchasing PPE’s for our membership.”

The number of corrections officers and inmates who have the coronavirus has climbed quickly over the past two weeks, according to union leaders and state officials.

DOCCS provided the following infection totals as of Wednesday:

• 147 DOCCS staffers

• 20 inmates

• 9 parolees

In a statement accompanying the new statistics, the agency said it decided to allow the masks after “thorough internal review.”

DOCCS added: “While neither the CDC nor the DOH (Department of Health) has recommended use of these personal protective devices in the correctional setting beyond what the Department has already provided, to the extent staff already possesses these items and will not be reducing their availability to frontline healthcare workers, the Department will not oppose their use if there is a chance that they may slow or even stop the spread of this virus from entering our facilities.”

Agency officials said inmates being quarantined will now get surgical masks to counter the threat of secondary transmission of the virus.

Powers, who has been in close contact with corrections officers throughout the state during the pandemic, has been self-quarantining at home for the past several days,

The union had been adamant in its position that staffers in prisons and mental health facilities should be allowed to wear masks.

Stefanik said she was “encouraged” by the state agency’s pivot allowing officers to wear the protective gear. She also urged the state to craft a “comprehensive planto address the continued lak of safety and health precautions in our prisons.”

“We need to address the concerning breakdown of communication between our prisons, our county public health officials, and hospitals,” the congresswoman said. “Opening up this communication line needs to be prioritized by the State immediately.”

State lawmakers who have called on the state agency to allow prison staffers to wear masks, besides Jones, included: Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda; Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale; and Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie.

CNHI reported March 22 that convicted rapist and former Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein was one of two inmates who tested positive at Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County. Numerous corrections officers at the Wende prison have had to be quarantined after having contact with the two inmates.

Weinstein had been transfered to the state prison system from Rikers Island, a New York City jail that has been dealing with a large cluster of prisoners who have tested positive for the virus, only days before he arrived at Wende.

At least one inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora has tested positive for the virus, according to state officials.

Powers, in a statement issued Monday, urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to “make employee safety a priority.”

Powers has been quarantined at home since testing positive.

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