A proposed class action claims New York State officials have left a group of nearly 100 elderly and/or medically vulnerable individuals at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 after the group was transferred to a remote facility described as a “prison nursing home,” purportedly to protect them from the virus, last summer.
Filed by three inmates alongside the grassroots Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, the 59-page lawsuit alleges the defendants have placed the collection of inmates and others at a heightened risk of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus amid the pandemic’s “second wave” while undermining the Adirondack facility’s ability to treat this “particularly vulnerable group.”
Among the defendants in the lawsuit are New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), its acting commissioner, its deputy commissioner and chief medical officer, and the superintendent of the Adirondack Correctional Facility. The lawsuit alleges the defendants have failed to take even rudimentary steps to prevent a “catastrophic” spread of the disease throughout the prison.
“Defendants have not implemented at Adirondack the most basic measures necessary to prevent COVID-19 transmission in the facility,” the complaint alleges. “Defendants are not conducting meaningful testing or screening for symptoms; they have not quarantined or re-tested incarcerated people they knew to be exposed to COVID-19; they do not ensure basic hygiene within the facility; and they have forced people to congregate closely under conditions that make it almost impossible to engage in social distancing.”
The lawsuit claims the plaintiffs and other inmates are “at the mercy of their jailers,” who, the case alleges, have exercised “shocking indifference” toward their needs and placed them directly in the path of a virus to which they are particularly vulnerable.
The risks associated with COVID-19 are “significantly elevated” in prison, where transmission and death rates are notably higher due to the confined conditions, the case relays. The lawsuit notes that the COVID-19 “attack rate,” or the proportion of people exposed to the virus who ultimately become sick, can reach as high as 80 percent in prisons in comparison to the 20- to 30-percent rate in the rest of the U.S.
The plaintiffs argue that although the “most obvious measure” to curb the spread of COVID-19 among prison populations would be to release a significant number of inmates, the defendants chose a different approach. According to the suit, the defendants decided instead to transfer in April 2020 nearly 100 elderly and/or medically vulnerable men housed in other facilities to Adirondack, a 500-bed prison in Ray Brook, New York that the complaint says was essentially converted to a “prison nursing home.” Per the case, DOCCS’s criteria for inmates housed at Adirondack were that the individual must be at least 65 years old, have an underlying health condition and be eligible for placement in a medium-security prison.
“Thus, by design, incarcerated people at Adirondack are old, infirm, and unthreatening,” the complaint states. “These are precisely the people that DOCCS should prioritize releasing in light of the COVID-19 crisis.”
Instead of being released, however, the plaintiffs and proposed class members were transported to “a distant and unsuitable place” where the defendants have “made no efforts” to protect them during the pandemic, the lawsuit says. According to the suit, the defendants have failed to test incoming transfers or quarantine people upon their arrival at Adirondack, posing a “grave risk of outbreak.” Moreover, social distancing on the hours-long bus ride to Adirondack and inside the facility is “impossible,” the suit stresses, claiming that many of the housing units have no doors and inmates are forced to maintain close quarters in common areas, bathrooms and the mess hall.
The case goes on to claim that inmates are not provided with sufficient supplies and protective equipment. Per the complaint, prisoners are given “only a few paper face masks” that they must wash and reuse and only two bars of soap every two weeks to use for all their washing needs.
Still further, COVID-19 testing at Adirondack is “sporadic and haphazard at best,” the lawsuit alleges, and the facility, the plaintiffs say, lacks adequate medical facilities to properly care for and quarantine the population in the event of an outbreak.
“The medical facilities and preventive procedures within Adirondack are insufficient to meet the routine needs of the facility’s elderly and infirm population; they are not close to sufficient to prevent or respond to a COVID-19 outbreak,” the complaint reads.
Additionally alleged in the lawsuit is that the Adirondack facility’s medical staff consists of only two nurses, and the surrounding community of Ray Brook lacks the medical resources to handle a potential COVID-19 outbreak, as the closest hospital with a large enough capacity to accept people from prison resides two-and-a-half hours away in Albany.
The lawsuit alleges the defendants’ inaction despite being warned of the dangers posed by conditions at Adirondack amount to violations of the U.S. Constitution, Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
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