FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 29, 2020
Chief of Department Hazel Jennings Wins Frederick O’Reilly Hayes Prize for COVID-19 Response
Top uniformed officer recognized for keeping the virus at bay in City jails
RIKERS ISLAND, NY – Chief of Department Hazel Jennings has won the Frederick O’Reilly Hayes Prize for her steadfast leadership of the department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Prize is awarded annually and recognizes City workers “who have led outstanding, high-impact project work.” Chief Jennings is the second member of DOC to have received it since its inception in 2005.
“Since even before the pandemic hit, Chief Jennings has been working tirelessly to keep people who live and work in our jails safe. She has been steadfast in her commitment to this goal. The public recognition for her leadership, especially during this public health crisis, is well deserved. I am extremely proud of everything she has accomplished,” said Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann.
Early on, the department adopted a robust response plan to protect both people in custody and correctional workers. It included a housing strategy that safely quarantines COVID-positive, symptomatic, and asymptomatic exposed individuals from the general population, the ongoing provision of appropriate PPE to all staff and people in custody, the radical expansion of medical areas during the height of the pandemic through the use of a previously closed facility, and the safe and rapid discharge of individuals in custody in order to increase space for social distancing and minimize the risk of exposure inside the city’s jails.
Due to the confined nature of carceral environments, social distancing remains difficult. However, DOC rose to this challenge, implementing successful strategies to keep COVID-19 cases within our facilities low. Whereas many correctional institutions often have higher rates than their surrounding communities, per data collected by Correctional Health Services, an independent agency responsible for the health care of people in the city’s jails, DOC’s COVID cases have remained on track with, or lower than, the COVID-positivity rate of the City of New York. Chief Jennings credits the partnership with CHS as being key to the effective response.
“We have been listening to the science and working with CHS and the Department of Health to adapt our housing strategy to keep people as safe as possible. While I am grateful to receive this award, I want to acknowledge that this has been a team effort from the beginning. Our partnership with CHS has been the cornerstone of our efforts to contain the virus,” said Jennings.
"Throughout the pandemic, our partnership with DOC, and the leadership of Chief Jennings, has proven invaluable in protecting the people entrusted to our joint care and custody from this lethal virus,” said Dr. Patsy Yang, Senior Vice President of Correctional Health Services. “A central part of our containment strategy in the jails has involved the implementation of a new housing plan for patients on the COVID spectrum, an effort involving hundreds of units and thousands of beds that has required close collaboration and coordination between the Chief and CHS's Operations and Medicine units. These joint efforts have undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives, and I'm proud of our shared commitment to safeguarding patients and staff. On behalf of CHS, I thank Chief of Department Hazel Jennings for her unwavering partnership and congratulate her on this well-deserved honor.”
People who work in the city’s jails have confronted the virus bravely, and not without sacrifice. Since March, eleven DOC employees have died from COVID-19. Three people in custody have died from the virus, all in the early days of the pandemic.
Vaccines have arrived in New York City and are being administered according to CDC guidelines. First responders should be getting them soon, but the fight is far from over. Like most of the country, infection rates in New York City are rising, and that is true in the city’s jails as well. DOC and CHS are employing the same strategies that worked during the first wave, along with new techniques. The Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC), which was reopened during the height of the pandemic to house people in custody who were symptomatic or COVID-positive, is now being used as an intake facility to separate males entering the jail system until they are confirmed COVID-free.
“We are not letting up in this fight one bit,” said Jennings. “I have seen what the people who work in our jails can do. I see their bravery and commitment every day, and I know that we are not only in a strong place right now when it comes to our continued response, but we will come out of this stronger as a department.”
The New York City Department of Correction (DOC) provides for the care and custody of people accused of crimes or convicted and sentenced to one year or less of jail time. The Department manages 10 facilities, 8 of which are located on Rikers Island. In addition, the Department operates two hospital wards (Bellevue and Elmhurst hospitals) and court facilities in each borough. Our dedicated workforce of both uniformed and non-uniformed staff members represent the city’s BOLDEST.