In the weeks between Jan. 6 and Jan. 13, the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, N.Y. added 55 new COVID cases. According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) report issued at the beginning of the new year, one Wende inmate died at Erie County Medical Center on New Year’s Day. It marked the 11th COVID-related inmate death in the last month alone.
Three weeks ago, DOCCS suspended visitations in every state facility citing an increase in COVID cases in prisons.
But under New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, people in state prisons and local jails aren’t receiving the COVID vaccine.
On Jan. 10, New York State’s prisons surpassed 4,000 COVID cases since the epidemic took hold of the country. With these numbers fresh in the minds of many, the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, Parole Preparation Project, Center for Community Alternatives, the #HALTsolitary Campaign and FWD.us released a joint statement calling out Cuomo for his indifference towards the plight of the state’s prisons.
“The Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole bills, along with the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, will help end suffering and death in New York prisons and bring a sorely-needed measure of justice and relief to the tens of thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers and their families,” read the statement. “What will it take for lawmakers to act?”
The AmNews contacted the governor’s office multiple times for a response and was met with silence.
Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, has a theory as to why the prisons aren’t getting much attention.
“This is racism, cynically and cruelly disregarding the lives of the Black and Latinx people who comprise the incarcerated population and their families,” stated Werlwas. “Governor Cuomo must end this perverse policy, which contradicts all public health guidance and allows the virus to spread within and out from the facilities, and immediately allow medical staff to provide the vaccine to our clients in jails and prisons.”
According to DOCCS, as of 2018, 72% of the states’ inmates are Black and Latinx.
Another report issued Jan. 1, from the New York City Board of Corrections, revealed that 70% of the city’s jail population resided in a housing unit more than 50% full. The city’s dorm units that house a third of the entire jail population, 1,606 New Yorkers, are in dorms more than 50% full.
Among the states’ inmates, according to Parole Preparation Project and several other activist groups, 4,022 people are eligible for parole release, 3,305 are currently being held on technical parole violation, 8,291 are aged 50 and older and 6,524 are within a year of max/condition release. The latter includes five women with infants in the Bedford Hills nursery program.
Earlier this month, The Legal Aid Society and Relman Colfax PLLC filed a federal class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York against Cuomo and DOCCS in the hopes of securing protections from COVID-19 for medically vulnerable and elder inmates who were transferred to the Adirondack Correctional Facility because of their age and medical conditions. The lawsuit accuses the state of not providing the proper protection for inmates once they’re transferred to the aforementioned correctional facility.
Rebecca Livengood, counsel at Relman Colfax, said Cuomo’s actions with these inmates are callous.
“Defendants have known for nearly a year of the risks COVID-19 poses to people in prison, particularly elderly people with underlying health conditions,” stated Livengood. “Transferring this vulnerable group in the face of these risks to a remote facility far from medical resources with no precautions flouts all reason and reflects a complete disregard for the safety of people Defendants have a responsibility to protect.”