By Murcel Rahimi
NEW YORK, NY – Various groups are renewing calls for Governor Cuomo to grant emergency clemencies and for the parole board and state prison system to adopt community demands.
The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, Parole Preparation Project, VOCAL-NY, Worth Rises, and #HALTsolitary Campaign issued the following statement as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the New York State prisons:
“We are both outraged and terrified that Gov. Cuomo has yet to take any action to release New Yorkers from prison in the wake of COVID-19. The virus is spreading, conditions are worsening, and the action is desperately needed. Three people with COVID-19, 2 incarcerated people and 1 staff person have tragically died. Many thousands of other incarcerated older people and those with compromised immune systems are at increased risk of death by this virus. We call on the governor to grant clemency now before it’s too late.”
The Release Aging People in Prison Campaign (RAPP) and the Parole Preparation Project (PPP) have consolidated reports on the conditions of New York State prisons. These reports confirm the toxic conditions and necessitate the immediate implementation of RAPP’s and PPP’s list of demands to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
According to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions (DOCCS), 36 people in prison and 201 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. On March 30, 2020, Juan Mosquero, an incarcerated man at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, died of COVID-19. Unsanitary conditions prevail in common areas, dormitories and cell blocks, where people are denied access to cleaning supplies and disinfectants. Soap, clean garments, and other important hygiene products are out of stock, and commissaries have restricted purchases of the remaining supplies.
People are resorting to washing their bodies with bleach.
Many people with symptoms are being “monitored in place” while housed in large shared dormitories, with no partitions or space between the beds, which ensures swift spread of the virus. Even State Police have complained to their unions about their own risk of exposure in these conditions, and are not getting responses. Others in the state have been prohibited from writing to prison administrators with their concerns.
In some facilities, incarcerated people have received no official communication about the virus at all, gathering what they can from TV news instead. Inconsistent education practices have been rampant: in some cases, people were asked to sign a liability waiver indicating they’d been educated on the virus, while, in others, no education is taking place at all.
Food items are unavailable due to commissaries being closed or out of stock. Lack of proper nutrition leads to compromised immune systems, expediting the spread of the disease. There is no COVID-19 protocol for the immuno-compromised, elderly, or otherwise more vulnerable incarcerated people.
Jose Saldana, Director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign said, “Medical Reports are warning that the Coronavirus is potentially fatal for the elderly, especially those with chronic health conditions and compromised immune systems. What will Governor Cuomo do to protect the lives of the more than 10,000 elderly men and women incarcerated in prisons across the state? Hopefully, he does more than they had done for the roughly 675 elderly men and women who have died in prisons across the state in the last nine years. We call on the governor to start the process of extending clemencies to the vulnerable elderly incarcerated men and women in state prisons, who are facing death during this serious time.”
Governor Cuomo’s responses to this humanitarian crisis haven’t been helpful. Instead, he has been pushing for a new law that would roll back newborn bail reforms that went into effect in January and instead expand judges’ power to put defendants in jail. Cuomo has backed this agenda for years, but his evident insistence on including it in the state’s budget negotiations amid a public health crisis is nonetheless remarkable.
“Every other elected official across the country is thinking about how they can reduce their jail and prison population,” Rena Karefa-Johnson, the New York state director for criminal justice reform for the advocacy group FWD.us, said in an interview. “But in New York, we have elected officials still trying to change legislation that would put thousands more people back in jail and slowing up an emergency budget process to do it. It’s wildly out of step with what’s happening across the country, and it’s wildly at odds with this narrative of New York taking COVID-19 seriously and keeping people safe. It’s bonkers.”
According to Time, an inmate at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City has died after contracting the novel coronavirus. Michael Tyson, 53, died on Sunday at Bellevue Hospital according to the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit legal services organization based in New York City. He had been in custody at Rikers Island over a technical parole violation—a non-criminal violation, like missing a curfew or failing to report an address change to a parole officer—since February 28. He was taken to the hospital on March 26.
“This tragedy would have been entirely avoidable if only Governor Cuomo had directed [the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS)] to act decisively from the outset of this epidemic to release incarcerated New Yorkers who, like Mr. Tyson, were especially vulnerable to the virus,” Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society, said in a press statement.
It is now time for the governor to take action and exert his executive powers in order to avoid another calamity. The demand for clemency has begun and many groups and activists are fighting for the release of inmates at risk in this pandemic.
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