Around mid-December, as the omicron variant of Covid-19 swept across New York state, four men in Leroy Peoples’s housing unit in the Broome County Correctional Facility began experiencing flu-like symptoms. They tested positive for Covid, and the Binghamton jail put the roughly 60-person pod on lockdown, according to Peoples.
But the jail didn’t test anyone else in the housing unit for Covid, he said, despite everyone having lived in close quarters with those with confirmed cases.
“We sit down and watch television, play cards, play chess — we live within a very close proximity to one another every single day,” Peoples told New York Focus. Nobody knew whether anybody else had contracted Covid. “It’s just nuts, man. They didn’t test anybody.”
Indeed, even as the county and state saw by far the worst and most rapid spike in confirmed Covid cases since the beginning of the pandemic, few people jailed in Broome County have been tested for Covid. Between December 1 and January 26, the jail reported administering 57 tests to the jail population — seven per week in a facility that jails more than 380 people on any given day.
And Broome County isn’t alone in its lack of testing for incarcerated people.
Using internet archives, New York Focus analyzed eight weeks of Covid data — from December 1, the day before omicron was first detected in New York, to January 26 — published by the State Commission of Correction, or SCOC, a government body tasked with monitoring incarceration standards. The numbers show an alarming lack of testing in local jails, which have been Covid hotbeds since the beginning of the pandemic and whose populations generally have low vaccination rates, and a wide gap between the few jail jurisdictions that test regularly and the many that don’t.
According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, US jails had a 50 percent average weekly turnover rate in 2019 and 2020, the lowest in over a decade. Thus, the average jail would have had to administer roughly five times the number of tests as its average daily population over the eight weeks to test each incarcerated person even once. (The state last published average daily jail populations for the month of November.)
But only one of New York’s 58 jail jurisdictions reported testing that frequently during the omicron surge, and only two others reported testing at at least half that rate. A vast majority reported testing at slower than a quarter of that rate, while at least two counties reported testing no incarcerated people at all during that eight-week period.
Additionally, at least one county has ignored SCOC requests for testing data with no apparent penalties, raising questions about the efficacy of state-level oversight.
Meanwhile, one county could be a model for a different approach: Monroe County touts a robust and regular testing regimen in its jails that allows it to screen hundreds of incarcerated people per week.
In the first eight weeks of omicron, nearly 3,200 people in jails across the state tested positive for Covid, according to the SCOC data, including more than 2,100 outside of New York City, nearly doubling the case count since the SCOC started tracking it in April 2020. As of January 26, nearly a third of jurisdictions had jails on at least partial lockdown.
With the attention of the press and public officials focused on disarray on Rikers Island during the latest coronavirus surge, other New York jails have flown under the radar, leaving Covid issues like testing unscrutinized.
State watchdogs have done little to intercede. The SCOC has not required or recommended any policies or procedures during the pandemic for Covid testing in local jails. According to a commission spokesperson, that’s up to the New York State Department of Health, which, now nearly two years into the pandemic, also hasn’t set any standards or issued recommendations, leaving jails to test — or not — as they see fit.
“There is no, nor has there ever been, any mandated directive that everyone needs to be tested,” asserted Mark Smolinsky, the Broome County Correctional Facility’s chief administrator. “There’s never been clear, mandated things.”
“There is a fact of no oversight of jails outside New York City,” said William Martin, a sociology professor at Binghamton University and organizer of Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier, an activist and watchdog group in Broome County. “And that’s been a real consistent problem leading to multiple unnecessary deaths in our jails.”