Advocates say COVID-19 dangers continue to plague state prisons

Cyril Josh Barker | 10/15/2020, midnight
The COVID-19 crisis continues to impact those who are behind bars, and criminal justice advocates say Gov. Andrew Cuomo is ...
Jail/Prison Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

The COVID-19 crisis continues to impact those who are behind bars, and criminal justice advocates say Gov. Andrew Cuomo is to blame.

Advocates recently released a report titled “The Missing Chapter” in response to Cuomo’s upcoming book “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The advocates say a chapter is left out about the governor’s failure to control COVID-19 in the state’s correctional facilities.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic there have been major concerns over the number of cases among inmates. Allegations continue to surface about the lack of the ability to social distance in prisons and limited items such as masks, hand sanitizer and other PPE for inmates and staff.

There have also been complaints about substandard medical care behind bars. Allegations include locking up any inmate with COVID-19 symptoms in solitary confinement, where they report suffering without medical assistance. Testing is also not guaranteed for prisoners.

“I am 63 years old, have HIV, cirrhosis of the liver and heart problems. I lost my mother to COVID, she was the one I wanted to go home to,” said an incarcerated person at Green Haven Correctional Facility. “Shortly after, I contracted COVID and struggled for months to shake the virus.”

“If we’re not gonna get the proper medical attention, I’m gonna die of something else. It’s like they just sent us to fade away and die,” another at Adirondack Correctional Facility said.

Advocates are calling on the governor to take the crisis behind bars seriously.

“What we know is that the governor failed to take critical and necessary steps to save lives during this pandemic,” said Jose Saldana, director of Release Aging People in Prison Campaign. “Elders and immunocompromised people are still in prisons that don’t offer adequate access to PPE and social distancing. Women were forced to give birth behind bars during the height of the crisis. Countless lives are at risk if the governor continues to ignore this problem.”

Marvin Mayfield of Statewide Organizer of Center for Community Alternatives said while Cuomo is being praised for bringing COVID-19 cases down to some of the lowest in the nation, he’s leaving some of the state’s most vulnerable behind.

“We refuse to allow the governor to take a victory lap when he has neglected our neighbors and loved ones behind bars,” Mayfeild said. “In recounting the story of the COVID-19 crisis, the governor must confront the illness and death in New York jails and prisons, and begin granting widespread clemency at once.”

In a statement, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesperson Thomas Mailey said that prisons have seen low COVID-19 infection rates. He reports 867 cases and 17 deaths out of nearly 40,000 inmates.

“Every facet of the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been guided by facts, scientific data, and the guidance of public health experts at NYS DOH and the CDC, and the work to protect the safety of New York’s incarcerated population was no different,” Mailey stated. “At the governor’s direction, DOCCS instituted a series of proactive measures from the onset that ensured the protection and health of staff and inmates and safeguarded our 52 facilities across the state from enduring a major outbreak.”

DOCCS also reports that as of Oct. 13, 2,974 individuals have been released early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency says masks have been supplied to the incarcerated, staff’s temperatures are taken and hand sanitizer is issued to all facilities for staff and the incarcerated population, as well as community supervision offices.