ALBANY -- Six New York state parole officers based in Niagara Falls tested positive this week for the coronavirus, CNHI has learned.
The officers come in regular contact with convicted felons under their supervision. The fact that they are now infected with COVID-19 was confirmed by Wayne Spence, president of the Public Employees Federation, the union for managerial and professional state employees.
Parole officers must work from state offices due to the fact they need access to sensitive online criminal justice data, which they can only get by logging on to state computers they cannot take home, Spence noted.
Parolees, meanwhile, are required to periodically report in person to their parole officers as part of their release conditions.
"It's impossible to have social distancing in a parole office," said Spence, who rose to the top position at PEF after serving as a state parole officer. "It's just not feasible."
Spence said he learned of the cluster of infections directly from a parole officer with knowledge of the situation Thursday. The parole system, known as community supervision, is under the umbrella of the
state Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision (DOCCS). The agency,, controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also controls both the prison system, which has been dealing with several clusters of virus infections at its facilities in recent weeks.
DOCCS spokesman Tom Mailey said his agency, for security reasons, refrains from disclosing on where parole offices impacted by COVID-19 work or are hospitalized.
"However we can share that, staff from nearby regions will be assisting with coverage in Niagara Falls, and a full sanitization of the office was conducted earlier this week," Mailey said. "A second sanitization of the entire office is being planned for tonight."
The infections were confirmed as parole officers throughout the state are preparing for annual Halloween visits to the homes of convicted sex offenders in an effort to protect children from known potential predators.
CNHI reported this week the state has released nearly 800 parole violators from the prisons as part of an effort to reduce density in the prisons amid the pandemic. An additional 2,200 convicted felons serving time for non-violent offenses and nearing the end of their sentences have also been let out of prison.
Spence said the release of those former inmates will put additional strains on the parole officers who supervise them.
"We are going to need additional resources, and when I say resources, I mean additional manpower," he said.
Mailey said adjusting to the release of the the prisoners returned to communities earlier than scheduled has been "carried out in a gradual manner throughout the pandemic in order to ensure each person is connected to the services and support that they need to succeed in the community."
He added: "In geographic areas where caseloads have been impacted, staff transfers have been prioritized and supervisors are authorized to approve overtime to ensure cases are appropriately supervised."
In the North Country, Clinton County Sheriff David Favro said state parole officers play vital roles in protecting public safety, noting his deputies and investigators often work closely with them.
The parole officers, he noted, can furnish important background information on potential suspects during a criminal investigation. "Law enforcement has a tendency to be reactive but parole officers have an opportunity to be proactive," Favro said. "They can go talk to these people and say, 'Look, if I see you out violating your conditions, I'm going to put you back in jail.' They can really stay on top of situations."
Spence said the process of revoking the parole of offenders who have since been released required considerable work on the part of parole officers. Many of them are now frustrated those same offenders are now back in communities despite their violations of the conditions of their previous release, he said.
"When you see what is going on with bail reform and then you compound that by putting additional parolees out on the streets then you have a perfect storm," said Spence, who linked a wave of shootings this year in upstate cities to the state's current policies on criminal justice.
DOCCS has crafted protocols aimed at ensuring the safety of parole staffers working at regional offices and the prisons.
"Staff continue to be provided with sufficient PPE and it is mandatory that staff wear masks while on duty," Mailey said. "Staff are screened daily for temperature; symptoms; contacts with a COVID-19 case; recent positive tests; and travel to a state with significant community spread that requires a 14-day quarantine."
According to data maintained by DOCCS, and last updated early this month, the parole system's Niagara Frontier region has a total of 29 parole officers and senior officers. They are responsible for the supervision of 1,385 parolees.
The Niagara Frontier parole territory, in addition to Niagara County, includes Erie, Wyoming, Genesee and Orleans counties.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.