“There’s Just Not Room”: People Inside Broome County Jail Voice COVID Housing Concerns

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — After a four-month suspension on all movement, county jails in New York can now transfer people to state prisons. They can only do so, however, if there are not any active COVID-19 cases in the jail, and no person under contact tracing can be transferred.

Some waiting to be transferred said they have feared housing conditions and COVID-19 outbreaks would pose barriers to being transferred.

Fear Of Risk

Amber Westmoreland was held at the Broome County Jail for two years before being transferred to a state prison last month. She was incarcerated for drug charges and a parole violation.

While at the jail, she stayed in a unit called I-Max, where women sentenced and ready to be transferred are held and newly arrested women are housed.

Before she got news of her transfer on March 31, Westmoreland said she feared she was at risk of contracting COVID-19 because of those new “intakes.”

(Bebeto Matthews/AP)

“Why house us with somebody that we can constantly contract it [from] every time a new intake person comes in, compared to housing us with a unit where everyone has already gone through the process?” Westmoreland said.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended jails quarantine all new intakes for 14 days before letting them join the general population.

Westmoreland said the women added to her block do quarantine, and Broome County Sheriff David Harder said “all inmates are tested ahead of time,” but they are allowed out in the common area and share the same materials, albeit at different times.

For Westmoreland, that raised a red flag.

“They use the same phones, they touch the same tablets, they share the same showers,” Westmoreland said. “So everything that we touch and use, they’re touching the same thing.”

Per jail documents from December, all quarantined blocks are provided with disinfectant to wipe down shared equipment, like tablets. But Westmoreland said cleaning and mask-wearing were not strictly enforced.

Outbreaks in the fall and winter sent housing units into lockdown several times. According to COVID-19 test data obtained by WSKG, there were 47 positive test results from Nov. 29 to Feb. 6, with 31 positive results reported on Dec. 2.

“You Guys Aren’t Moving”

Westmoreland and other state-ready women in her block wrote grievance slips, which are the jail’s formal complaint process, on the same day. Together, they asked to be moved to a new unit in the general population.

Westmoreland said the grievance officer came back and rejected their complaint.

“They came in like two days later like, ‘Oh yeah, your slips were funny, ha ha,’ and just kind of laughed off the joke,” Westmoreland recalled. “He was like ‘You guys aren’t moving.’”

Broome County Sheriff David Harder (center) at a press conference with sheriffs from seven counties last year. (Jillian Forstadt/WSKG)

WSKG asked to interview the jail’s grievance officer, Adam Valls, but Sheriff Harder said all communication with jail staff must go through him. He said he did not know about the specific grievance.

“I hardly ever hear of these because, I don’t want to say they’re minor, but if he resolves it there’s no reason to pass it on,” Harder said in an interview last month.

Harder said that grievances can also be filed with the Commission of Corrections, the body that oversees county jails in New York, if a person is not satisfied with their decision.

As far as conditions in the pods, Harder would not answer WSKG’s questions.

“I’m not going to get into all these different things that you want,” Harder told WSKG. “All you want to do is ask more questions. Just stick to the basics because I know what you’re trying to get at and I’m done.”

“I’m very busy today,” the sheriff added.

Activists in Broome County have repeatedly called for more transparency about COVID-19 cases and conditions. A few hundred community members marched outside the jail in June amid calls for racial justice and prison reform.

Harder said there have not been any COVID-related hospitalizations or deaths since the start of the pandemic. As of Thursday, 77 people incarcerated at the jail have been vaccinated.

Overcrowding In The Pods

After their first failed attempt, Westmoreland said she and the other women who submitted the grievances considered submitting another round of slips, but decided not to.

“I feel like by the time we put it in and if they decide to do anything, and when they decide, we’ll be gone, hopefully,” Westmoreland said.

By “gone,” she meant to a state prison — ideally one less crowded than the Broome County jail, which was at maximum capacity in March, with 433 people inside.

Westmoreland said the jail has opened new pods because of overcrowding.

“They just opened multi, which isn’t even really a pod. It’s like a makeshift pod that they make when they’re getting too full,” Westmoreland explained. “There’s just not room for us, but you’re not moving us so we’re just stuck here and more people just keep coming in.”

Harder confirmed that the housing unit called “multi” was converted to housing, although he suggested that it was done to prevent double-bunking and accommodate social distancing measures. The jail can hold 536 beds, but with those changes, that maximum capacity was reduced by about a hundred.

Westmoreland said nearly-full pods still made it hard to social distance while she was in the I-Max block. She hoped her new facility, Bedford Hills in Westchester County, will have more room and less risk.