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‘The Situation Here Is Dire’: How An Upstate New York Prison Failed to Contain a COVID-19 Outbreak

FCI Ray Brook was slow to respond to the spread of coronavirus among correctional officers. Now the outbreak has reached prisoners.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images.

By March 31, James Weldon, president of the correctional officers’ union at the Federal Correctional Institution, Ray Brook, 150 miles north of Albany, New York, had been trying for a week to sound the alarm about an impending COVID-19 outbreak. 

Two officers had already tested positive, and the county health department had not traced their contacts, he said. Officers exposed to the disease had been interacting with staff and the 599 people incarcerated there. Already, those incarcerated at other federal prisons were dying from the virus, and nationwide almost 200,000 people had tested positive. 

But at Ray Brook, as Weldon and several incarcerated people there told The Appeal, life carried on as usual. Corrections officers were not allowed to wear masks. Neither officers nor prisoners were informed about the confirmed cases. And while all outside visits had been canceled, prisoners continued to attend classes and report to their jobs, overseen by corrections officers and staff.

Within two weeks, eight officers at FCI Ray Brook and three prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19. Many others fear that the disease has spread throughout the prison. 

COVID-19 has devastated federal prisons around the country. As of Thursday, 16 prisoners have died of the disease and at least 449 more have tested positive for it. At one federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, six people incarcerated there had died from the disease, and five have died at Elkton FCI in Ohio as of April 15. 

Prisoners, correctional officers, political leaders, and legal advocates agree that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Ray Brook’s administrators failed to take the necessary measures to prevent or prepare for a similar outbreak.

On April 1, the BOP implemented a partial lockdown, which is ongoing, requiring all federal prisoners to be secured in their cells or quarters except for short breaks to shower and make calls. But Weldon says that Ray Brook should have been locked down much sooner. “The local warden has the authority to lock the institution down,” he said, “I’m dumbfounded why [he] waited.”

Kanya Bennett, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, however, said, “The 14-day lockdown is extreme, seems impractical, and is also cruel.” Instead of a lockdown, she said the BOP should have immediately started to reduce the prison populations by releasing those most vulnerable to the virus. It was only last week, two weeks after the ACLU first called for these releases and after eight federal prisoners had died nationwide, that the BOP began to release people on home confinement. As of April 15, the bureau had released 1,119 of its more than 170,000 federal prisoners. 

Even with the lockdown, Bennett explained, the coronavirus will still be able to spread among correctional officers and those incarcerated, leaving many prisoners waiting in fear. A spokesperson for FCI Ray Brook did not answer any questions about COVID-19 at the prison.

“The situation here is dire,” said one prisoner at Ray Brook who worked in the same kitchen as an infected correctional officer and wished to remain anonymous. In a text message to The Appeal, he wrote that the spread of the virus “is inevitable due to the close quarters we are forced to live in. The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]’s guidelines of social distancing [are] impossible because we have to live with other inmates in very close-quartered cells.” 

Another prisoner, Ryan Canfield, said that many of those incarcerated at Ray Brook share four-person cells that are “about the size of a common fast-food restaurant bathroom.” He said the prisoners are currently being let out in groups of about 25, but that until last week, prisoners were interacting regularly with correctional officers.

But even under lockdown, correctional officers explained, prison staff were not taking proper safety precautions. As of April 2, the prison had still not provided officers masks, said Darrell Palmer, the northeast regional vice president of the national union for correctional officers at federal prisons. Canfield said it was not until April 4 that he noticed officers starting to wear masks consistently, and prisoners were given one mask each.

By then, the BOP had announced that seven officers at Ray Brook had tested positive for COVID-19, and more, Weldon said, were in quarantine. At that point, Weldon said, no one from the county health department had traced the contacts of the first confirmed cases. (Franklin County did not respond to requests for comment.) Furthermore, officers had to use their own sick leave if they wanted to self-isolate. “It wasn’t taken seriously,” Weldon said. The first officer to be diagnosed was hospitalized on  April 1, and remained ventilated and intubated as of April 13, according to a fundraising page from his family.

If the disease continues to spread among officers and prisoners at Ray Brook, as it has at other federal prisons, the number of cases could overwhelm the rural health care systems of New York’s North Country. 

Hospitals there are already scrambling to prepare for a surge in patients, and dozens of cases from a federal prison could overwhelm their capacity, said Helen Evans, president of the New York State Association for Rural Health, an advocacy group. “Rural hospitals have been running on zero or even negative margins for some time,” she said. In recent years, North Country hospitals have been overburdened in part because of the region’s aging population, high rates of uninsured patients, and physician shortages. “They have very little reserve to ramp up additional equipment or staffing, and that makes them vulnerable,” Evans said. 

Matthew Scollin, a spokesperson for Adirondack Health, a local hospital, told The Appeal that it has a total of 12 ICU beds and nine ventilators, and the hospital has treated three COVID-19-positive patients so far. 

Rural hospitals have been running on zero or even negative margins for some time.

Helen Evans president of the New York State Association for Rural Health

“Regardless of FCI Ray Brook,” he said, “we’re already trying to plan for numbers that would outstrip what we have on hand day to day anyways.” The region’s largest hospital, in Plattsburgh, where the correctional officer was admitted, did not respond to questions about their capacity. 

While Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on April 3 that upstate hospitals would be required to loan 20 percent of unused ventilators to downstate hospitals, he withdrew the policy after outcry from many upstate representatives and health officials. 

Still, some people incarcerated at FCI Ray Brook fear the prison and local hospitals cannot provide adequate care, a concern that Palmer, the union vice president, shared. As prisoners get sick, they will have to be transported to local hospitals with correctional officers, leaving fewer to manage the prison. “We’re going to run out of staff,” he said. 

In the meantime, prisoners told The Appeal that all they can do is wait, trying to clean their space and social distance as much as their conditions allow, hoping the worst-case scenario is avoided. 

“This place is not prepared to handle an outbreak amongst inmates,” said Canfield, who added that his cellmate had to wait months just to receive antibiotics for an infection. “I know that this place will likely be my burial ground if I come down with a bad case of [COVID-19].”