As a lifelong resident of Harlem, I have seen a lot change over the years. Where we used to have uptown and downtown, now people talk about SoHo and NoHo, and there are new storefronts and buildings on every block around 125th Street. But two things have stayed the same: I can find my way around my neighborhood with my eyes closed, and so many of the people we lost to mass incarceration in recent decades are still locked up. That includes my husband.
With COVID spreading in our communities and behind bars, many of them may never return—unless lawmakers take quick action. That is why I am calling on my state senator, Brian Benjamin, to support the Elder Parole bill, to save lives and begin to heal the open wound in our community.
I am not asking Senator Benjamin to open the prison gates. The Elder Parole bill simply gives all people in prison who are 55 or older and have served 15 years or more of the sentence an opportunity to appear before the Parole Board. If the Board finds them fit for release, they can come home and live on with dignity. They can put the lessons they have learned to good use and mentor young people to help rather than hurt their communities.
My husband is 66 years old. He has been incarcerated for 16 years and, even though he is a totally different person than he was when he committed his crime, he faces at least another 26 years unless the law changes. I got news for you: Incarcerated people do not live to be 92. Amid this pandemic, his asthma, diabetes, and kidney issues may take him from me far sooner. My husband was effectively sentenced to death in a cage. I worry for him every day.
It both helps and hurts to know that I am not alone. Many families have already lost incarcerated loved ones to COVID, and many more have lost them to other premature deaths in prison. More than 1,000 people have died in prison under Governor Cuomo and another 1,000 are effectively sentenced to die there in the coming years and decades. At the same time, many New Yorkers in prison have lost loved ones to COVID on the outside. My husband’s incarcerated friend has already lost five family members and the virus does not appear to be slowing down soon.
There is an especially depressing element to all COVID deaths that may help to illuminate the suffering of families separated by incarceration: Because the virus is so contagious, people often get no chance to say goodbye and their loved ones die alone. That is nearly always our experience when we lose a loved one in prison.
Governor Cuomo talks in his press briefings about pausing visits with his mother, applauding himself for helping to keep her safe. What would he do if his mother were at Bedford Hills or Albion prison? I have the same question for Senator Benjamin: What would you do if your family was in prison at this moment?
Cuomo tells everyone to wear a mask but his own prison staff don’t wear them, even as they send incarcerated people to solitary confinement for failing to wear them. When my husband got surgery (based on a misdiagnosis), it was done by three veterinarians in training. Cuomo’s prison system thinks of our loved ones as disposable farm animals. Maybe I am being naive, but I expect better from Senator Benjamin.
Senator, do the right thing: Support Elder Parole. Help bring my husband home to me. And please do it fast, so he comes home on his own two feet, and not in a box.
—Theresa Moses, firstname.lastname@example.org