Lawsuit challenges safety at New York ‘prison nursing home’

A class action lawsuit filed on behalf of dozens of elderly and medically vulnerable inmates accused New York of “deliberate indifference” to their treatment in a back country prison that lacks basic virus containment protocols.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic this summer, the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision began moving nearly 100 elderly inmates from prisons across the state to the Adirondack Correctional Facility, creating a “prison nursing home” in the 500-bed male facility in near Lake Placid, the federal lawsuit filed claims on Friday.

But rather than protecting the inmates, the lawsuit has argued that their rendition and lack of social distancing measures in prison did the opposite for a population aged at least 60 years and more likely to die when infected with the virus.

“The residents of Adirondack are at the mercy of their prison inmates in every way,” said the lawsuit filed by Legal Aid Society and Relman Colfax PLLC. “Your prison guards have acted with shocking indifference to their needs, placing them in the crosshairs of a virus to which they are very susceptible.”

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The lawsuit names DOCCS, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and other state officials as defendants, and alleges that the governor has not shown the same level of urgency as the public in protecting the elderly and the medically vulnerable detained.

DOCCS, the state agency overseeing the prison system, declined to comment, setting out the agency’s policy on pending litigation.

More than half of New York State’s 52 prisons deal with coronavirus outbreaks, Evan Misshula, a data scientist with the Correctional Association of New York, told The Journal News / lohud.

The lawsuit accused the state of failing to test the typical inmate before putting him on a bus where he was “instantly” incorporated into the prison population. Meals are often held in confined spaces and with men from all units.

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In December, the number of New York State prison inmates who tested positive rose from around 1,800 to around 3,100, according to DOCCS records. The number of deaths rose to 24 from 18 at the beginning of the month.

In response, the state suspended prison visits late last month, citing the risk of an outbreak.

As of Friday, this total was 27, as documents show. There were two positive cases and no deaths at Adirondack Prison, although proponents say the number is unreliable as the facility does not have an extensive testing protocol.

The lawsuit has problems with PPE and hospital capacity

In this December 30, 2020 file photo, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a ribbon cutting ceremony at Moynihan Train Hall in New York.

The lawsuit also questions inmates’ protective gear, claiming they received few disposable paper face masks that are washed often so that they can be reused. Employees often don’t wear their masks or wear them under their chins, exposing their nose and mouth, the lawsuit said.

The legal lawsuit also raises questions about whether the local hospitals are hours away or unable to handle a major Adirondack prison breakout.

The lawsuit also accuses Cuomo of continuing to bring inmates to the facility without releasing a significant number of detainees, which would curb the spread of the virus in New York prisons.

The Cuomo government announced at the end of November that around 3,150 detainees had been released, according to court records.

In October, when COVID-19 spread rapidly inside the state’s Elmira Correctional Facility, Cuomo and his top advisor Melissa DeRosa defended the state’s response to the virus in the prison system.

“We test every single prisoner and the (corrections officers) and take appropriate precautions along the way to ensure anyone who is positive is immediately isolated and follow the same contact tracing procedures that you would do outside of the walls” DeRosa said on October 26 of the Elmira outbreak. “We exposed all of the bunk beds to solve density problems.”

Cuomo has granted 10 commutations since the pandemic began, according to the lawsuit, which was also filed on behalf of the grassroots organization Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, which has asked the governor to hand over more.

“As the state and its prison system experience a serious second wave of the COVID-19 virus, Governor Cuomo and state prison officials should do everything possible to promote public health in the prisons and the communities around them,” said Jose Saldana of the Organization director said in a statement.

“Operating a nursing home in prison is just the wrong way to go,” he said.

Tiffany is the Race and Justice reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Click here for their latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac.

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