New York COVID-19 in detention

Background on Data | Federal | State Prisons | County Jails | ICE | Juvenile

(Updated June 15, 2020)

Background–the Outbreak in New York

New York State has seen the single largest number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. The state has struggled to meet testing demand; this is especially true for the populations in places of detention. It was reported on April 21st that the general public in New York state got tested at four times the rate of individuals within jails and prisons. 

New York state’s response to the sudden spread of COVID-19 indicates the struggle of containing a pandemic within correctional facilities at all levels: federal, state and local. 

Federal: There have been serious concerns about the accuracy of reporting at Federal prisons in New York. Official figures report: 33 incarcerated people tested positive; 1 death at a privately managed residential re-entry facility; and 109 staff tested positive.

State prisons: below provides an overview of reported COVID-19 infections in state prisons and fatalities.

Table 1.1 Overview of COVID-19 in New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS), by May 31st 

  Tested Positive Deaths
Incarcerated people 503 16
Staff 1276 4
Paroled people 70 4

Data: NYSDOCCS; Table: World Peace Foundation 2020.

Jails: In NY, like elsewhere, jails and other county-level detention centers rarely published information about their facilities. Most information that emerged came from local news sources. The one exception to this was New York City, where the nonprofit Legal Aid Society tracked COVID-19 in jails, and city government published a report on June 5th.

NYC reported that the daily number of detained people in its jails (not a cumulative number, but a daily count) with COVID-19 peaked on April 27th with 381 positive people in detention. On June 5th, this number was 340. Three people died: on April 5th, 11th, and 23rd.  The NYT reported that 545 detained people tested positive by May 20th. The city also reported on its staff at correctional facilities. From March 16th – June 5th, 1408 Department of Corrections staff tested positive, and 196 Correctional Health Services staff tested positive.

We provide an overview, below, of COVID-19 in an ICE facility in Buffalo and two youth detention centers in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Federal Facilities

The BOP oversees four federal facilities within New York: Brooklyn MDC (Brooklyn), New York MCC (NYC), Otisville FCI (Otisville, west of the Hudson Valley), and Ray Brook FCI (Ray Brook, in the Adirondacks). Starting on May 7th, BOP changed its reporting from only currently positive  cases, to including data about on positive cases, recoveries, and deaths at these sites. There is no testing information available.

BOP also contracts out residential re-entry services at another three sites. These private facilities are managed by CORES Services Group, Inc. (RRC), GEO Care, Inc. (RRC), and Volunteers of America of Western New York, Inc. (RRC). They have reported consistently low numbers of cases among incarcerated people: the most at any site was 4 positive cases. However, one person died at Volunteers of America of Western New York, Inc. (RRC). None of these sites report testing procedures.

By May 31st, 2020, the four federal prisons reported positive test results (there no reported fatalities), see Table 1.2.

Table 1.2 COVID-19 in Federal Bureau of Prisons Facilities in New York state

Site Incarcerated Person + Incarcerated Person recovered Staff + Staff recovered
Brooklyn MDC 5 5 40 33
New York MCC 5 5 45 33
Otisville FCI 12 12 15 14
Ray Brook FCI 11 11 9 8

Data: Bureau of Prisons, via the UCLA COVID-19 in Custody Project; Table: World Peace Foundation 2020.

BOP placed federal prisons on lockdown beginning on April 1st, limiting the movement of incarcerated people, with the exception of showers or calls. Initially resistant to allowing guards to wear masks and protective gear, and slow to respond to pleas from the Corrections Officers union to prepare for COVID-19, according to The Appeal, only on April 4th were guards instructed to wear masks and distribute them to incarcerated people. At the time, BOP already reported 6 staff had tested positive at Ray Brook FCI; by the end of April, an additional 5 incarcerated people tested positive at the facility.

At Brooklyn MDC and New York MCC, are both located in New York City–the area that would become the epicenter of the US epidemic. Reports suggest the BOP’s response was woefully inadequate. Jane Wester of the New York Law Journal, reported on April 30th that only 21 tests had been conducted for incarcerated people at both facilities. Brooklyn MDC houses a population of 1578 people, and New York MCC houses 671.  At the time, there were 72 confirmed cases among staff.

A court case was filed on behalf of incarcerated people at Brooklyn MDC, charging that the prison was failing to respond to incarcerated people’s medical needs. A court-ordered inspection revealed that between March 13th and April 13th, incarcerated people put in 147 medical requests related to symptoms consistent with coronavirus (37 of which stipulated they were repeated requests). Nonetheless, only 12 people had been tested, and a few others were held in isolation. As reported by Nick Pinto on May 1st in The Intercept, the prison’s health services administrator, Stacy Vasquez, stated that the prison only had ten test kits. By June 15th, at no point did Brooklyn MDC report more five positive cases among incarcerated people.

The accuracy of reporting on staff infections at Brooklyn MDC was also called into question by the union representing employees at the facility and in journalists’ reporting. As Andrew Denney wrote in the New York Post on April 27th, at least 30 staff were on sick leave with coronavirus symptoms, and others who were tested by their own doctors were not included in the BOP count. The union was also prevented from distributing N95 masks that had been donated for staff protection.

A court-ordered inspection of New York MCC on May 13th found similar problems. Dr. Horace Venters, a former chief medical officer for New York City’s jails, who conducted the inspection, reported:

“Several sick inmates were sent to high-security Special Housing Unit cells, where ‘they shivered through their fevers on concrete beds, while their pleas for blankets and clean drinking water were ignored,’ the lawyers wrote.”

At the time, BOP reported 42 staff members at the facility had tested positive. The number of incarcerated people who tested positive never rose above 5, a number first reported on May 7th.

Follow up reporting on May 29th indicated that the prison had done little or nothing to improve conditions.

A June 3rd statement by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jean-David Barnea, who was representing the MCC’s warden, admitted that at least 34 incarcerated people had been quarantined with symptoms. Despite conceding the number of virus cases was probably much higher than the five reported by the BOP, Barnea countered claims by lawyers working on behalf of incarcerated people that the numbers were as high as 75 to 150 people who were infected with COVID-19.

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS)

The NYSDOCCS is in charge of 52 prisons, including 17 maximum security, 29 medium security, 5 minimum security, and 1 drug treatment campus. On March 1, 2020, they reported that there were 43,801 people housed in these facilities and another 35,889 people on parole and under their responsibility.

On March 14th NYSDOCCS halted all visitations at its facilities. However, guards were not allowed by DOCCS to wear face coverings or masks until April 1st. Only 74 prisoners had been tested at that point, despite the escalating epidemic within the state. By April 3rd, approximately 56% of all correctional officers and sergeants had tested positive for coronavirus within New York, according to the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association union president.

According to the NYSDOCCS website on COVID-19, all incarcerated people were issued hand sanitizer and masks, given information on the virus and proper hand-washing techniques, and given access to “some weekly free calls and secure messages.” But the prison health system was already under considerable strain: one-fourth of all medical positions within state prisons were empty.

NYSDOCCS reported daily updates on coronavirus cases, with details on testing results only for incarcerated people, not staff. As of April 21st, only 1% of the incarcerated population within New York had been tested. Numerous prisons reported no or very few cases, with minimal testing. For instance, Downstate Correctional Facility had only reported one case among those incarcerated, but on April 4th there were 14 cases among staff.  These numbers ballooned over time (see Graph 1.1).

The preventative measures were insufficient to halt the spread of the infection. In early April, people incarcerated at a facility in the Queensboro Correctional Facility reported that they were not given face coverings and no social distancing was taking place.  At Shawangunk, people reported being “denied medical and mental healthcare.” They also stated that correctional officers were not taking the necessary precautions to prevent viral transmission, and were abusive toward those in an infected unit, where people were only allowed to shower twice a week. John J. Lennon, an incarcerated journalist, reported similar issues at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, including lack of proper cleaning supplies. He noted that in early April the guards told the incarcerated population that they were not allowed to wear face masks. The week before there had been seven cases among the incarcerated population and around 30 among the officers. These examples provide a glimpse into what appears to be a broader issue in how the state’s prisons responded to COVID-19.

Another potentially troubling policy was the transfer of people on or around April 18th, from Fishkill Correctional Facility, where an outbreak among employees resulted in a staffing shortages, to Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, NY. However, no subsequent cases were reported at the Upstate facility.

According to NYSDOCCS (through June 2020), prisoners are only tested once they exhibit symptoms and received a medical exam. Despite limited testing, the number of cases within NYS prisons grew steadily over time (see Graphs 1.1 and 1.2). The number of tests administered closely tracked positive cases until the third week of May, suggesting that the NYSDOCCS was not testing at a level needed to detect and prevent outbreaks, but only as symptoms appeared (Graph 1.3).

  • On March 31st, they reported 14 cases among the incarcerated population and 123 among staff.
  • By the end of May, NYSDOCCS reported:
    • 1276 positive cases among staff, of whom 4 people had died; 
    • 503 positive cases among the incarcerated population, of whom 433 had recovered, and 16 people had died.
    • 70 infected and 4 deaths among the paroled population.

Graph 1.1

Data: NYSDOCCS; Graph: Arlyss Herzig 2020.

Graph 1.2

Data: NYSDOCCS; Graph: Arlyss Herzig 2020. **The below facilities are not included because they did not report any cases by May 31st: Adirondack Adolescent, Albion, Altona, Bare Hill, Cape Vincent, Cayuga, Edgecombe Residential Treatment Facility, Elmira, Five Points, Gouverneur, Groveland, Hale Creek ASACTC, Hudson Adolescent, Lakeview Shock Incarceration, Moriah Shock Incarceration, Ogdensburg, Orleans, Riverview, Rochester, Upstate, Washington, Watertown, Willard Drug Treatment Campus, Woodbourne, and Wyoming. The prison in Auburn reported a case on March 17th, but the infected person was subsequently transferred.

Graph 1.3

Data: NYSDOCCS; Graph: Arlyss Herzig 2020.

One June 1st, the NYSDOCCS unveiled its phased “re-opening fact sheet,” outlining plans for on-going measures, like face mask and hand-washing policies, and discussed how visitation and programming would be re-allowed.

County Jails

Of the 62 counties within New York state, we were able to find data for only 28 county jails (see Table 1.3).

There is considerably more information about jails in New York City than elsewhere in the state. Throughout the epidemic, the Legal Aid Society tracked COVID-19 in New York City jails, and the NYC government issued a report on June 5th, documenting the epidemic in jails.

Graph 1.4

Data and Graph: New York City Board of Correction June 5, 2020. Available at:, page 8.

The situation at Rikers Island in NYC was the most visible crisis in a NYS jail. As reported by the New York Times, by April 8th, 288 detained people, 488 correction staff and 78 health care workers tested positive for the virus.  Seven jail employees had died as well. 

However, problems were not limited to that site. A May 20th article by Jan Ransom in the New York Times that relied heavily on interviews with correctional officers, revealed patterns across the city’s jails that exacerbated the epidemic: including inadequate PPE, forcing people to return to work before they had fully recovered, and long shifts. The city’s subsequent June 5th report provided a more comprehensive overview of the infection among its correctional staff.

Graph 1.5

Data and Graph: New York City Board of Correction June 5, 2020. Available at:, page 14.

Across the state, publicly available information is inconsistent. As example: Sheriffs at Erie County Jail reported no inmates have tested positive for COVID-19; however, local news sources indicated that three staff members tested positive April 4th, 2020.  

The Tompkins County Jail in Ithaca offers a more positive model. According to Paula Ioanide, associate professor at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, beginning in 2004, the small jail implemented programs to develop alternatives to incarceration. This cut the number of people in the jail so that when COVID-19 hit, they were under-capacity and able to practice distancing within the facility. The jail reported zero cases.

Table 1.3 Overview of COVID-19 in New York county-level detention facilities, as reported in media and on Sheriff’s websites.


Name of Facility Date of Updated Total # Prisoners Positive # Staff Positive # Prisoner Deaths # Staff Deaths
Albany County Jail 3/23/2020 0 2 0 0
Allegany County Jail 5/12/2020 0 5 0 0
Broome County Jail 4/23/2020 11 13 0 0
Cattaraugus County Jail 3/28/2020 0 0 0 0
Clinton County Jail 5/25/2020 1 0 0 0
Columbia County Jail 4/15/2020 0 0 0 0
Dutchess County Jail 4/24/2020 0 5 0 0
Erie County Correctional Facility 5/4/2020 0 0 0 0
Erie County Jail 4/4/2020 0 4 0 0
Franklin County Jail 3/28/2020 1 0 0 0
Herkimer County Jail 5/6/2020 0 0 0 0
Monroe County Jail 5/23/2020 1 3 0 0
Nassau County Correctional Center 4/24/2020 44 93 0 0
Niagara County Jail 4/16/2020 0 3 0 0
Oneida County Jail 5/6/2020 0 0 0 0
Orleans County Jail 3/30/2020 0 0 0 0
Putnam County Correctional Facility 4/24/2020 0 1 0 0
Rikers Island Jail Complex 5/6/2020 369 913 3 9
Rockland County Jail 4/17/2020 0 0 0 0
Saint Lawrence County Jail 4/20//2020 0 0 0 0
Schoharie County Jail 3/24/2020 0 0 0 0
Suffolk County Jail 5/19/2020 1 25 0 0
Sullivan County Jail 5/21/2020 32 4 0 0
Tompkins County Jail 4/22/2020 0 0 0 0
Ulster County Jail 3/30/2020 0 0 0 0
Washington County Jail 5/25/2020 0 0 0 0
Wayne County Jail 3/28/2020 0 1 0 0
TOTAL   461 1072 3 9

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities

ICE holds people in detention in 7 centers in New York, six of which are county jails and county correctional facilities. According to ICE, only Buffalo Federal Detention Facility has reported cases among its detained population. No facilities have reported cases among staff.

Several concerns arise related to the Buffalo facility. On April 11th, several people were transferred from Buffalo Federal to a jail in Texas without being screened for COVID-19, despite many reportedly presenting symptoms. On April 20th, ICE reported it tested 20% of the people detained at Buffalo Federal, resulting in 45 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including 42 among people who were asymptomatic.

The numbers of people infected continued to rise. On April 21st, there were 46 reported cases, which marked the third week in a row that the cases had tripled. All detained people who tested positive were moved into one open dorm. On May 19th, there were 49 reported cases among detainees at Buffalo. By June 13th, ICE reported all of the infected people detained in Buffalo had recovered.

Graph 1.6 Buffalo

Data: ICE; Graph: Arlyss Herzig 2020.

Despite the fact that no cases have been reported by ICE elsewhere in New York, local news stories have reported cases within the jails where ICE detainees also housed. On March 18th, Albany County Sheriff’s Deputy was reported to have coronavirus, as was a nurse within the Albany County Correctional Facility (which houses people held by local, state and federal authorities) on March 23rd. However, the Albany County Sheriff has said no detained people or COs tested positive at the jail. Similarly staff tested positive at Alleghany County Jail (4 people as of May 12th) and Wayne County Jail (1 person as of March 28th). There are no reports from Clinton County Jail, Orange County Correctional Facility, or Chautauqua County Jail.


Juvenile Detention Centers

There are eight juvenile detention facilities within New York. NYS has not released published information about these facilities. A search of local media revealed information about three sites.

Local media reported one case among staff at Monroe County’s Children Secure Detention on April 5th.

Local reporting also revealed cases at two centers managed by New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS): Crossroads Secure Juvenile Center (in Brooklyn, with around 62 youth) and Horizon Secure Juvenile Center (in the Bronx, with around 22 youth).

Already in late March, staff and/or youth tested positive at both facilities. On March 20th, local media reported that three staff had tested positive: two at Crossroads and one at Horizon. By March 31st, three teens tested positive at Horizons. By April 3rd, eleven youth at Crossroads tested positive, and were then transferred to Horizon.

Nonetheless, as of April 3rd, supervisors at Horizon told staff to only wear masks and gloves when working with youth who had tested positive for coronavirus. Medical staff at Crossroads had originally instructed staff not to wear masks to prevent panic within the facility. Only on April 10th did ACS distribute masks to staff. By that time, one staff member, Patricia George, had died. There were also 18 known infections at Crossroads. Reporting on April 19th, stated that the number had risen again: 35 staff tested positive.

Despite reports of positive cases at both facilities as early as March, on April 3rd, local journalist reported that ASC was transferring youth between facilities. All youth who had tested positive from both facilities were to be housed at Horizon. To open more space there, officials moved some youth who did not display symptoms to Crossroads. Throughout March and April, staff at the centers expressed concern for their own health safety and that of the youth in their care resulting from this plan. Not only was COVID-19 an issue, but so were the potentially destabilizing impacts of the plan on the youth. 

On April 19th, journalists reported that a “fracas” occurred at Crossroads, to which 50 police officers responded. Derek Robinson, vice-president of Union 371 that represents staff at the facilities, claimed that, “the violence that broke out was the result of the misguided consolidation policy and that he had warned that moving youth would lead to trouble, especially since there are what he described as desperately low staffing levels.” 


Student researchers affiliated with the Tufts University Prison Initiative at Tisch College who contributed to this report include: Roshni Babal, Alex Lein, Caroline Blanton, and Arlyss Herzig.

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