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COVID-19 Outbreaks at NY Prisons Lead to Renewed Calls for Clemency

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo visits a state prison
Gov. Andrew Cuomo visits a state prison (FILE)
Credit: Gov. Cuomo's Office

The number of incarcerated individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 at a small state prison in Chemung County has grown from just four at the beginning of the month to more than 300 confirmed cases as of this week, according to the latest state data.

Visitors are no longer allowed at the prison, Elmira Correctional Facility, but criminal justice advocates are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state prison agency to do more.

“Right now, the COVID outbreak at Elmira Prison, by far the largest yet, threatens countless lives both behind bars and in the surrounding communities,” a coalition of criminal justice groups wrote in a statement Friday.

The coalition included groups like Citizen Action, the Release Aging People in Prison Project, the Center for Community Alternatives, and more.

Greene Correctional Facility, in Greene County, has experienced its own spike in cases over the last three weeks, with more than 100 COVID-19 cases confirmed at the facility Thursday. There were just three cases of the virus at the prison three weeks ago.

There have been smaller outbreaks at other prisons in New York throughout the pandemic, but the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has largely kept the virus at bay in most of its facilities.

There are about 50,000 people living in state prisons in New York. DOCCS, according to state data, has tested more than 24,000 incarcerated individuals for the virus since the crisis began — about half of the prison population.

Of those, more than 1,200 individuals were diagnosed with COVID-19, and about 800 have recovered from the virus so far. The state has reported 18 deaths from COVID-19 in state prisons.

Since the COVID-19 crisis began in March, criminal justice advocates have called on Cuomo and the state Legislature to take steps to protect the prison population.

They’re now ramping up those calls amid the new outbreaks in Chemung and Greene Counties. They want Cuomo to release older inmates, individuals with underlying conditions, and those who have less than a year left on their sentence.

“These are our families. These are our community members. Each and every one of them. Cuomo has the power to decarcerate with the stroke of a pen,” said Thomas Kearney, an organizer with the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign.

They also want to see DOCCS lay out a concrete plan for tamping down the virus at the two COVID-stricken facilities. The agency has already made information publicly available on what it’s doing to prevent the spread in prisons across the state.

NYSCOPBA, the union representing correction officers in the state prison system, has also sounded the alarm over the spike in cases, and has worked with DOCCS in recent weeks to address the outbreak.

The union said in a statement that rapid, on-site testing has now been made available at both prisons as a result of those discussions. Transfers in and out of the prison have also been suspended, along with the new visitation rules.

“We will continue to monitor those two prisons as well as others throughout the state that are starting to see an uptick in the coronavirus again,” NYSCOPBA said. “It is vitally important that DOCCS takes proactive measures to safeguard staff, their families, and the inmate population. This is a step in the right direction.”


New York NOWSen. Luis Sepulveda on Prison System's Handing of COVID-19
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Senator Luis Sepulveda discusses New York State's handling of COVID-19 in state prisons.