New Yorkers Protest As Elmira Prison Sees 565 COVID-19 Cases

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — 565 incarcerated individuals at the Elmira Correctional Facility in Chemung County have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday afternoon. It’s the largest outbreak in a New York prison since the start of the pandemic.

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesperson Thomas Mailey said in a statement that there are no longer any tests pending at the facility.

According to Mailey, none of the individuals who tested positive at the Elmira facility have required a transfer to an outside hospital and the majority of people are asymptomatic.

565, or a little more than 37 percent, of the 1,518 individuals currently assigned to the prison tested positive for the virus. 24 have recovered as of Tuesday.

In response to the spike in cases, DOCCS suspended visitation and transfers in and out of Elmira last week. It made the same suspension at Greene Correctional Facility in the Hudson Valley. The state also deployed rapid testing resources to Elmira on Oct. 21.

But advocates across New York said Tuesday that curbing the spread of COVID-19 in prisons requires more than new safety protocols; it requires granting more clemencies.

Advocates across four cities call for clemencies at New York prisons experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases. (screen capture, Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

Close to 50 people gathered outside the Elmira Correctional Facility. For months, advocates have called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to release people in the prison system who are at higher risk for serious illness from the virus. With the surge in cases at Elmira and other facilities, they are now calling those clemencies “overdue.”

In conjunction with the Elmira protests, advocates with the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) Campaign, the #HALTsolitary Campaign and the Center for Community Alternatives held protests online and in Albany, New York City and Rockville Centre.

Syracuse resident Emily NaPier Singletary attended the protest outside of the Elmira Correctional Facility, where her husband, Derek Singletary, is incarcerated.

She said people in the prison are now in their cells essentially 24/7 with limited phone access.

“People cannot lose touch with the outside world. They need to talk to their loved ones,” NaPier Singletary said. “This is a public health crisis and you have cut them off from the outside world.”

NaPier Singletary said she visited her husband at the prison twice a week before visits were suspended. While there, she said she saw many Elmira correctional officers without masks or wearing them improperly during her visits to the prison.

“I can tell you exactly how COVID got in there, because none of these officers have been wearing masks this whole time,” NaPier Singletary said. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes as I’ve gone in there, and Derek has seen it with his own eyes since the pandemic began.”

Mailey did not immediately respond to WSKG’s questions about the allegations. DOCCS officials said the agency does not disclose the number of cases among staff by prison for safety and security reasons.

According to the statement, staff are screened daily for temperature, symptoms, exposure to a known COVID-19 case, recent positive tests and travel to a state with significant community spread that requires a two-week quarantine. Mailey said staff are also provided with sufficient PPE.

DOCCS announced Sunday that nearby Southport Correctional Facility in Pine City will also suspend visitations until further notice. Mailey said that the facility, which is located within Chemung County’s orange zone micro-cluster, is undergoing mass testing of its 454 incarcerated individuals. So far, the facility has seen 410 negative results and no confirmed positive cases.

Every individual incarcerated in the 52 state prisons will have been tested for COVID-19 by the end of November, Mailey said.

Several state politicians joined the protests, in-person and online. State Senator Luis Sepulveda, who co-chaired a hearing on COVID-19 in prisons last month, led protesters in a moment of silence for incarcerated people who have died from the virus.

The New York State Department of Corrections has reported 18 COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. None have been at Elmira.

Sepulveda said that further measures must be taken to prevent more deaths from occurring.

“We don’t have the death penalty in New York anymore,” Sepulveda said. “COVID-19 should not replace the death penalty in our society.”

Sepulveda said he is committed to decreasing the prison population in order to curb the spread of the virus.

Mailey said that DOCCS has implemented early release opportunities for individuals based on thorough individualized reviews since the start of the pandemic, resulting in the early release of 3,057 individuals.

The count includes women who were pregnant and within 180 days of their approved release date; individuals who committed on non-violent, non-sex offenses and within 90 days of their approved release date; and individuals who had their low-level parole violations cancelled.