While the novel coronavirus spread rapidly in communities on Long Island, especially those densely populated, over the last two months, only one inmate contracted the virus in the two Suffolk County jails.
Correctional facilities can be hotbeds for the spread of any virus, but the Suffolk County Sheriff’s office kept the COVID-19 inflection rate dramatically low. Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. believes that was because of the early use of face coverings inside the jail, frequent sanitation of the facilities, and social distancing practices enforced at the correctional facilities in Riverside and Yaphank.
As of Tuesday, May 19, 21 correction officers out of 858 — less than 2 percent of the correctional staff — have contracted coronavirus. Also, four out of 252 deputies have been diagnosed. There are eight officers with active cases.
Currently, there are no COVID-positive patients in the jails, where there is an average daily population of 515.
Back on April 8, a 60-year-old inmate at the Riverside jail, who had been behind bars since August, came down with symptoms and and was diagnosed at a local hospital. The housing area he had been in was closed, and 23 other inmates who lived in that unit were moved to a separate isolation pod where monitored for symptoms for two weeks. Officers who had come into contact with that inmate — 18 in total — went into self-quarantine. The inmate has since made a full recovery.
In addition to the one inmate who contracted the virus at the jail, one inmate entered the jail with the virus. According to a spokeswoman, this inmate told the staff he or she was positive, and the medical staff had it confirmed. The individual, who is still incarcerated, was put in quarantine, recovered, and has since tested negative.
Toulon said it should serve as an example for the general public that COVID-19 can be controlled by following the advice of public health officials. He has been handing out masks in public and talking to people about the importance of wearing a mask.
“I think if more people knew how we have controlled the spread of COVID-19 inside the jails by wearing face coverings and maintaining physical distance from others, that people would understand that they do have some control if they take personal responsibility,” he said.
The sheriff began planning for the possibility of the outbreak in February and his team was ready to implement health and safety protocols in early March, when the county saw its first COVID-19 case.
Visitation was stopped and has not yet resumed. Attorneys may still see their clients, but with courts closed and teleconferencing available, attorney visits are way down.
Anyone who enters the jail, whether they are attorneys or officers reporting to work, must wear face coverings and abide by social distancing rules. Signs were posted in English and Spanish for inmates about proper hand washing techniques and social distancing rules. Inmates were also each given two cloth masks, one to be worn while the other is washed, and some took part in a program to make masks.
“The mixed messages have put too many people in danger, led to further spread of the virus, and has caused immeasurable damage to the economy,” he said. “I strongly advise people to adopt the practice of wearing a face mask or a simple face covering and staying a safe distance from others in public places. Our jails are proof that it works. We need to stop the spread so that we can move forward and get our economy up and running.”
The sheriff’s office is working on a plan on how to resume normal activities at the jails. The sheriff reached out to his counterparts in Nassau County and Westchester to form a regional planning work group to discuss best practices and how to open up safely.