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People Held in New York Prison Say They Face Abuse After Guard In Their Unit Tested Positive For COVID-19

Men in Unit B-2 at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility say staff members have harassed and abused them since they possibly came into contact with an infected officer.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

People Held in New York Prison Say They Face Abuse After Guard In Their Unit Tested Positive For COVID-19

Men in Unit B-2 at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility say staff members have harassed and abused them since they possibly came into contact with an infected officer.


At least one corrections officer at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility has tested positive for COVID-19, and incarcerated people allege that another officer has continued to show up for work even after his wife tested positive for the disease. 

Corrections officers at the Ulster County, New York, prison are harassing and humiliating incarcerated people who may have come in contact with the infected officer, according to a person housed at the facility who asked not to be named for fear that retaliation by corrections officers could interfere with his program completion and scheduled release. Email messages from the Shawangunk prisoner were shared with The Appeal, and he consented to them being cited in this article as long as he could remain anonymous. 

He wrote that beginning on March 19, prison staff singled out the B-2 housing unit at Shawangunk for abusive treatment after the infected officer worked in the unit, despite the fact that he was a “rover” who worked in multiple areas of the prison. According to the prisoner, staff members are serving inadequate portions of food and allowing people in the B-2 unit to shower only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, instead of every day. People held at Shawangunk are also being denied medical and mental healthcare, and corrections officers have taken few precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “They are not following quarantine procedures here at all,” he wrote. “COs are handing out our food without gloves or masks, there is no HVAC ventilation at all, they only opened the windows and doors, we have not been tested [for COVID-19] at all.” 

Additionally, he alleged that at least two incarcerated people in the unit have been physically assaulted by guards as retaliation for protesting conditions of confinement. On March 19, after one man asked corrections staff for basic necessities like showers, COVID-19 screenings, medical services, and access to phone calls, one captain “had him pulled out of his cell, maced and beat up by five COs before throwing him in his cell with no medical attention.” The corrections officer captain also reportedly called people living in B-2 “lowlife scumbags” and said “he prays we all catch it [COVID-19] and die because none of us deserve to live, and if he could, he wouldn’t feed us and [would] kill us all himself.” 

Men held in the B-2 unit suspect that they are being singled out for abuse because their block primarily houses people convicted of sex offenses. (Shawangunk offers a sex offender counseling program.) People living in the unit have also expressed fear that the isolation of their unit will cause other incarcerated people to attack them once the isolation ends. “We are being punished because we are a housing unit of sex offenders, and we’ve already got a stigma behind that and will now be harassed and abused even more because we are being quarantined and no one else in the facility is,” the prisoner wrote. “So I expect a rash of attacks and physical assaults when we are finally allowed out by the population, especially if someone in another housing unit comes down sick. They are making us a target for abuse.” He wrote that several people in B-2 have begun to self-harm and even attempt suicide by hanging. 

On March 25, people in B-2 initiated a hunger strike to protest their conditions of confinement. As part of the hunger strike, they are demanding daily showers, hand sanitizer and face masks, HVAC ventilation, medical and mental health treatment, an end to abuse and violence perpetrated by corrections officers, and access to phone calls during the day. They have also requested an explanation for why their housing unit has been singled out for mistreatment, and why the prison waited two days to begin isolating the unit after the infected corrections officer worked there. 

COVID-19 is quickly overwhelming the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). New York’s corrections officer union said Monday that its leader, Michael Powers, tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement, Powers asked Governor Andrew Cuomo to allow officers to wear personal protective equipment, like masks, and suggested that the corrections union would pay for equipment if the state could not. In a letter to the editor published by the New York Times on Sunday, David Gilbert, a prisoner at Shawangunk and the father of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, wrote that “maintaining a safe distance from others in prison is impossible” and urged the state to decarcerate in order to prevent the spread of the virus. 

In an email to The Appeal, a DOCCS spokesperson wrote that as of Tuesday, 123 DOCCS employees and 14 incarcerated people had been infected with the virus. DOCCS would not disclose the number of people infected with the virus at Shawangunk. The spokesperson noted that DOCCS has zero tolerance for—and investigates—all allegations of staff misconduct, but declined to comment on the specific allegations of abusive treatment in B-2, citing a policy forbidding comment on the status of individual housing units.

Hunger strikers at Shawangunk are asking the public to support them with a phone zap targeting the Commission of Correction and  the inspector general. “Practices at Shawangunk… probably already have resulted in lost lives,” a March 27 phone zap script reads. “If you don’t get a handle on this, you will have more blood on your hands.”