Prison double-bunking to end

The entrance to Gouverneur Correctional Facility, 112 Scotch Settlement Road. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

People incarcerated in New York state prisons have one more reason to get vaccinated against COVID-19, after the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced a new vaccine incentive program.

In a memo issued to all DOCCS inmates Wednesday, acting commissioner Anthony J. Annucci detailed a program that will provide special meals to inmates who receive at least one dose of a vaccine between now and Dec. 8.

According to the memo, any presently unvaccinated people in the prisons will be given access to a “paired down menu, such as pizza or McDonalds,” sourced from a vendor local to their facility, with a maximum cost of $10 per person. The menu must include non-pork items and will be selected by the facility itself in consultation with its Incarcerated Liaison Committee, which represents the inmates of each prison.

Additionally, any DOCCS facilities that boost their vaccine acceptance rates by 10% or more between Wednesday and Dec. 8 will receive a special roast beef Christmas dinner, described as “very popular” in past years.

DOCCS officials said the program is just one part of a wider push to offer food-related incentives to people incarcerated in state prisons. In an email, a DOCCS spokesperson said the program was developed after officials sat down with the Incarcerated Liason Committees to figure out a way to improve vaccination rates.

“The feedback received was that offering food items from local vendors, that is not accessible in the facility but which the ILCs periodically purchase, would be an enticement,” the spokesperson said.

There is no cost projection for this program, according to the spokesperson, because there is no projection for how many inmates will take advantage of the initiative.

As of Oct. 18, the spokesperson said, 15,851 inmates, or 49.9% of all people in DOCCS custody have taken the vaccine. Clinics have been held at every facility and every incarcerated person has been given the chance to take a vaccine. DOCCS is currently offering the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine and the Moderna two-dose vaccine to inmates.

Officials with the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the union representing state correctional officers, said the program is another example of an unfair difference between how unvaccinated inmates are treated and how unvaccinated correctional officers are treated.

“For an administration that prides itself in equality, it’s demoralizing to see the disparity in the treatment of inmates and staff,” said NYSCOPBA President Michael B. Powers in a statement Wednesday. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, our employees have worked long overtime hours in violent and harsh working conditions, and are now subjected to a confusing, complicated testing mandate on their own time.”

Correctional officers who remain unvaccinated are required by state mandate to submit weekly COVID-19 tests to prevent the spread of the disease. Officers are asked to submit tests from home or at state-contracted testing sites run by private companies. NYSCOPBA members sued the state over the vaccine mandate when it was announced over the summer, although the courts denied their request for a temporary restraining order.

“Meanwhile, the state is using valuable resources to bring taxpayer-funded Happy Meals into facilities to incentivize inmates to get vaccinated. Where’s the fairness in that?” Mr. Powers said. “The state should treat everyone who resides inside the walls of the prison system equally and provide universal testing of staff, inmates, contractors and visitors at the facilities.”

While the department will not comment on pending litigation, the DOCCS spokesperson said correctional officers have been given a number of incentives to get vaccinated, as has every New York resident. The state has offered lotteries for vaccinated people to enter for tickets to Bills, Giants and Jets games, and DOCCS facilities have held employee appreciation luncheons for staff who elect to get vaccinated.

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