THE CHIEF – Take Precautions in Jails As Swine Flu Spreads

By Tommy Hallissey

May 29, 2009 – After the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association threatened to sue the Department of Correction over its handling of at least 10 cases of swine flu on Rikers Island, the agency May 21 decided to screen all inmates and take other steps to safeguard officers’ health.

A day before the lawsuit was to be filed, COBA received a letter from DOC Senior Deputy Commissioner John J. Antonelli that said the department would heed many of the recommendations of the union, prompting COBA President Norman Seabrook to shelve the lawsuit.

Preventive Steps
Correction is now screening all inmates, distributing masks and latex gloves to Correction Officers who want them, reducing unnecessary court appearances, using what had been closed facilities on Rikers Island, and sanitizing jails where there have been infections. It has also created a task force to look at other possible precautions.

“I appreciate the Office of Labor Relations intervening upon my request and responding to this crisis,” Mr. Seabrook said. “It is unfortunate that Correction Officers are treated as second class citizens in the City of New York by the Mayor’s Office.”

Earlier in the week, he had responded angrily to the lack of action after four confirmed cases of swine flu and four probable ones were found in a single Rikers Island jail.

‘A Feeding Frenzy’
“The swine flu is a feeding frenzy at Rikers Island,” Mr. Seabrook said because of the close quarters.

A Correction Department source said that the inmate who developed the first case of swine flu at Rikers had been in the prison almost a month and likely came into contact with about 1,000 different people, including inmates and staff, while incarcerated. That inmate entered the jail on April 28 through the Brooklyn courts and was ultimately held at the Anna M. Kross Center. Mr. Seabrook called for portions of that jail to be shut down temporarily to stop the spread of the disease.

Correction Department spokesman Stephen Morello said that those portions of exposed areas of the jail were quarantined.

Mr. Seabrook, though, said at a May 19 press conference after his meeting with Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn, that not enough was being done to protect Correction Officers from the dangers of the disease.

Predicts Spread to Courts
“We’ve asked the City of New York to implement certain policies and procedures that would help limit the spread of this bug and they have refused at this time,” he said. “They are not negotiating in good faith and they have to understand that this bug is going to affect thousands of people eventually.”

He said it would spread from Rikers Island to the court system.

Mayor Bloomberg fired back at Mr. Seabrook in a separate press conference that day. After praising him as a union leader, he said, “If he is an epidemiologist, it’s the first time I’ve heard of it.” The union had contrasted Correction’s wait-and-see response to the greater urgency shown by the Department of Education. In the second wave of the disease, 19 city schools were shuttered in a week after it claimed the life of a Queens Assistant Principal.

Move Bail Hearings to Rikers?
To prevent the rapid spread of the disease, the union asked the city to expedite bail hearings by having them on Rikers Island. The union says this change, which would require the city to have judges at the jail compound, would reduce the amount of time most inmates would spend at the facility.

COBA attorney Richard J. Koehler, a former Correction Commissioner, said this had been done before during a tuberculosis scare in the 1980s. “They are not treating it like an emergency in the jails,” he said. “They have in other areas but not in the jails.”

The union has also suggested that the department distribute masks to Correction Officers; the department agreed to do so. Mr. Morello said that because of the health scare all new inmates would now receive a health screening.

Mr. Koehler countered that the health screenings were given after the inmates had already been exposed to other inmates in a holding pen. Mr. Morello also said that every inmate would be examined for flu-like symptoms. Mobility of prisoners in parts of the jail where sick inmates are housed will be minimized.

Mr. Morello would not say how many cases there would have to be before the Correction Department would be willing to shut portions of Rikers Island.

“I’m not saying shut down Rikers altogether,” Mr. Seabrook said. “What I am saying is make sure we are being treated equally and fairly, close half of the Anna M. Kross Center, reopen the other two jails, one in Queens and one in Brooklyn, house those inmates there, decontaminate the facility and then start to put them back there as we know it is safe to do.”