ALBANY — Pointing to ebbing COVID-19 infection rates, New York’s prison system is moving to resume a visitation program that allows qualified inmates to stay in separate quarters with members of their immediate family.

According to the Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision, the family reunion program will commence Sept. 8.

In a related move, beginning this weekend, DOCCS will allow visitors and inmates to have a brief embrace at the beginning and end of each visit. That move is being teed up to “celebrate the success” of efforts to curb the spread of the deadly contagion behind prison walls, the agency says.

Karen Murtagh, the director of Prisoners Legal Services of New York, a group that represents incarcerated persons in legal matters, said she applauds prison administrators for resuming the contact visits.

She noted inmates have to be approved for the family stays, and they and their family members who visit must all have been vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.

DOCCS, an agency controlled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has stepped up its awareness campaign aimed at getting more inmates vaccinated, by distributing literature and by offering video presentations, Murtagh said.

COVID AND PRISONS

According to state data, a total of 6,602 New York inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 2020.

There have been 35 inmate deaths and 8 staff deaths linked to the virus, with 9 parolees falling victim to the infection.

To be eligible for the family reunion program, inmates must have “an exemplary record” during their incarceration, Murtagh said.

“That is a program that has been around for decades,” the lawyer pointed out. “It is a special privilege for people to earn.”

VACCINE INCENTIVES

With the goal of increasing the number of inmates who have been vaccinated for COVID-19, the prison agency has decided to provide incentives, including deposits of $75 in commissary accounts, for several inmates at each of the 50 facilities within the system.

“I think it’s wonderful what they are doing with the incentive program,” said Murtagh, noting prison administrators are planning a barbecue celebration for prisoners at the facilities with the highest rates of vaccinations.

Michael Powers, the president of the New York State Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, criticized the involvement of monetary and other inducements for inmates who agree to get the shots.

Vaccinations have previously been made available to inmates throughout the state system, though just 45% have gotten the shots thus far, according to state data cited by Powers and Murtagh.

The vaccination inducements also drew criticism from state Sen. Mike Martucci, R- Orange County, whose district includes six towns and two villages in Delaware County.

“I suppose given Cuomo’s previous record on other criminal justice issues we should just be thankful one of the incentives isn’t a prisoner furlough program,” Martucci tweeted.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhinews.com

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