ALBANY — Advocates for state prison inmates said Wednesday they are outraged that prisoners are involved in making surgical masks behind bars while they themselves are only allowed to wear "make-shift" face coverings that offer little protection to their health.
"If the governor sees incarcerated people at state prisons as full human beings, then he must take every precaution to protect their health and safety,' a coalition of groups, including Release Aging People in Prison Project and the HALTsolitary Campaign, said in a statement.
Concerns about the welfare of both inmates and state corrections staffers have been mounting in recent weeks because of a surge in infections at several prisons.
According to data updated Wednesday, 15 state prison inmates have died from the virus, along with four Department of Corrections and Community Supervision employee and four parolees. In all, 1,143 staffers have been infected, nearly three time the number of inmates — 415 — who have tested positive for COVID-19.
State officials told CNHI the prison system plans to distribute surgical masks to all 40,000 inmates across the state by the end of this week. Those masks are being manufactured by inmates at the Clinton and Coxsackie correctional facilities, they said.
Official also said 4,000 cloth masks were donated to the prison system Wednesday by Hudson Link and the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison. Those nonprofit groups, they said, plan to produce masks for all inmates.
The state agency's policy on masks for inmates has been evolving, the officials acknowledged. Inmates are being encouraged to use their state-issued handkerchiefs as masks.
The inmate advocates have been increasing pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release more inmates who are elderly or have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the contagion.
David George of the Release Aging People in Prison group said the prison system has released more than 100 inmates early because they had less than three months to go on their sentences.
But he argued the state should be releasing hundreds more in order to address the spread of the virus behind bars.
He and other advocate contend that there has been inadequate testing of inmates. George said he was told by one inmate that prisoners could not be tested unless they have very high temperatures or are "blue in the lips."
The same advocates have previously criticized Cuomo for using inmates to produce infection-fighting hand sanitizer products while they are getting paid "pennies an hour."
"We've seen this story before," the advocacy groups said Wednesday. "First it was hand sanitizer. Now it's medical face masks."
Prisons that have experienced more than 25 inmate infections include: Fishkill, Sing Sing, Otisville, Bedford Hills, Green Haven and Great Meadow.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org