As Prepared for Delivery
Remarks from DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann
• Good morning Executive Director Egan, Chair Jones Austin, and members of the Board. Thank you for the opportunity today to speak to you about how the Department has been handling the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, and the steps we are taking to keep everyone who works and lives in our facilities safe.
• Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to publicly thank the hard-working men and women of the Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services for their incredible work during this crisis. Despite experiencing the same uncertainty and loss so many New Yorkers now face, DOC and CHS staff have remained committed to protecting the safety and wellbeing of those entrusted to their care. As Commissioner, I am proud to work beside you and thank each and every one of you for your service to New York City during this unprecedented time. Your efforts have been nothing short of heroic and have not gone unnoticed.
• As America marches through the coronavirus pandemic, no small amount of attention has been paid to how the outbreak is playing out in our correctional institutions.
• The New York City Department of Correction operates the nation’s fifth largest jail system. Even before the first case appeared in New York City, the Department and CHS were preparing in accordance with guidelines from the CDC, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and with knowledge and experience gained through past epidemics. Screening, housing, sanitation, and health protocols have followed all these guidelines.
• The Department’s pandemic response plan that was presented to the Board and the public on March 10, nearly two weeks before the city and state ordered its shutdown, provided a strategic roadmap for the limitation of the spread of COVID-19 within our facilities that we continue to follow today, two months later.
• DOC took early and unprecedented measures, including reopening a closed facility – the Eric M. Taylor Center – on March 22, to house those who are symptomatic or confirmed to have COVID-19. At the same time, we centralized the intake and housing of asymptomatic new admissions at the Manhattan Detention Center. Finally, at the direction of CHS, people in housing areas that may have been exposed to coronavirus are quarantined.
• As a result of our preparation leading up to this crisis, and the swift and decisive action we have taken to address instances of COVID-19 in our facilities, we are seeing success. There has been a steady decline in the number of “quarantined” housing units across the facility, a clear indication our containment strategies are working.
• Throughout this pandemic, we have endeavored to be as transparent as possible. We have provided daily updates to media on the numbers of confirmed cases among both people in custody and staff, and the numbers of those who have died from coronavirus. We provide detailed data, down to the facility, to the Board of Correction which posts data daily for all to see on their website. We are in regular communication with elected officials, defender organizations, and other advocacy groups.
• When I reflect back at the whirlwind that was the past two months, I am in struck by the fact that we amassed a mountain of accomplishments in a matter of days and weeks in March. You will hear shortly from dedicated DOC leadership about how quickly we created systems and operations from the ground up – asymptomatic/symptomatic New Admissions, staff health screening, family video visits, a law library request and delivery service, and a daily all-staff newsletter – and how we are now carrying out these operations at frequencies in the thousands, as if we had been doing this for years.
• Acknowledgment of our remarkable work during this crisis has not been limited to local interest; we have fielded inquiries from correction systems around the country that are looking to learn from our successes and modify their operations to mirror ours.
PPE AND SANITIZATION
• Controlling a highly contagious disease within a jail facility is a challenge, and it is understandable that questions and concerns have been voiced about sanitation procedures, the availability of soap, and the provision of PPE.
• Let me be clear:
o The Department first acted to require masks for staff and people in custody on March 11. Over the next days and weeks, we added additional areas/units/posts where staff and people in custody were required to wear masks. The Department took these actions almost a month before a “recommendation” was issued by health authorities that masks be worn by people when in public.
o On April 3, the Department required masks be worn by all staff and people in custody. This was almost two weeks before the Governor’s Executive Order that all New Yorkers must wear a face covering when social distancing was not possible.
o At every stage, the Department has supplied everyone with ample PPE to meet these requirements. No staff member and no person in custody is being required to reuse masks. Staff have been instructed to procure PPE from their control room at the start of their shifts and people in custody have replacement masks readily available to them in their housing unit.
o Soap and cleaning supplies are provided to all people in custody free of charge.
o Housing units, dayrooms, and other congregate spaces are sanitized on a daily basis, high touch areas are sanitized every two hours, and showers are sanitized three times per day. Since mid-March, supervisors have conducted, 9 times a day, detailed coronavirus sanitization audits of all of our facilities, and we have provided the results of those audits to BOC daily.
o Since early March, DOC transport vehicles have been sanitized daily, unless they have transported a person who is symptomatic, at which point they are immediately sanitized.
o Beginning on March 26, all staff, without exception, have been required to be screened for flu-like symptoms and have their temperature checked prior to entering a DOC facility.
HOUSING UNIT DENSITY AND SOCIAL DISTANCING
• For the past few years, New York City has had the lowest jail incarceration rate and the lowest crime rate of all large cities in the nation. In the face of the current public health emergency, the number of New Yorkers held in NYC jails has plummeted, shrinking by about 30% in just over one month—a steeper population decline than in all of last year.
• At the same time, we faced an unprecedented rate of staff out sick with coronavirus-like symptoms.
• In response to these things, we did not consolidate the number of open housing units, though that would have been the best practice for operational and fiscal efficiency.
• Instead, in close coordination with CHS and in support of the housing unit strategies that we jointly agreed were necessary in order to protect the health and safety of those in our custody, we have maintained the same volume of open units and limited unnecessary housing reassignments for people in custody.
• Nevertheless, there has been considerable, repeated, public attention and concern voiced regarding the purported “density” of our housing units and our ability to support social distancing practices in the jails.
• Here are the facts:
o The Department is currently operating at an overall occupancy rate of 49%. This means that more than half of the beds in units which are open, are empty.
o Dormitory style housing units – which by design do not afford individuals their own rooms in which they can self-isolate from others – are occupied at a rate of approximately 37%.
o The overwhelming majority (70%) of dorms are less than half full.
o For the dorms that are more than half full, almost all of them (84%) are medically quarantined. This means that the individuals who live in the unit are asymptomatic, but were previously exposed to a person who was symptomatic and tests positive for coronavirus. In agreement with CHS we have agreed to limit any housing unit reassignments for the people in those units unless absolutely necessary for a period of weeks or longer in order to minimize the potential spread of coronavirus among our jails.
o As of today, there are 4 dorms that are not quarantined and exceed 50% capacity, but the people in them are healthy and safely living together. And all but one of them are program houses (e.g., detox). Therefore, at this time, we have elected not to make housing reassignments solely for the purpose of achieving an arbitrary housing capacity threshold.
o We have been in constant communication with staff and people in custody to raise awareness and educate them on safe social distancing and handwashing practices, including painting cues on chairs and benches that support appropriate social distancing.
• Despite this unprecedented crisis and its many challenges, the Department remains committed to protecting all those working and living within our facilities.
• We will continue to collaborate with our partners to develop creative practices and policies to effectively manage this public health emergency, and we will come out stronger and bolder as a result. Thank you again for the opportunity to briefly highlight our efforts to maintain the health and safety of those in our custody and care.
• I will now turn it over to CHS and DOC staff for a more detailed presentation on our joint COVID-19 response.