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Former Inmates Ask Cuomo to Release More Prisons to Quell Rising COVID-19 Spread

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Advocates call on Gov. Cuomo to release prisoners amid COVID-19.
Advocates call on Gov. Cuomo to release prisoners amid COVID-19.
Credit: Dan Clark

Protests were held Tuesday in four locations in New York over the growing number of state prison inmates infected with the coronavirus.

There have been outbreaks in at least four prisons: the Greene, Clinton and Cayuga correctional facilities and in Elmira, where over 450 inmates have now tested positive for the virus.

The demonstrators, who chanted “free them all,” are part of long-standing prisoners’ rights groups, including Release Aging People from Prison, or RAPP, and the HALT Solitary campaign. They held protests simultaneously at the Elmira prison and in New York City, on Long Island, and outside the State Capitol in Albany to ask that sick and elderly prisoners be released early.

Thomas Kearney, a RAPP regional organizer and a former inmate, said he remembers what the judge told him the day he was sentenced to prison for a crime that resulted in harm to another person and “displayed a depraved indifference to human life through risk of death.”

Kearney said the judge told him the time served might help him reflect on what he had done.

“So that I would be able to learn some sense of empathy and compassion for my fellow citizens,” said Kearney.

He said New York’s political leaders, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and members of the State Legislature, are not showing any of that compassion to inmates. Kearney said they could release some of the state’s prisoners if they had the political will to do so. Kearney said Cuomo has the power to grant clemency to 50% of all prisoners to clear up space in the facilities for social distancing.

He said it’s unconscionable to allow the 39,000 inmates to face potential death from the virus simply because they are housed in crowded conditions.

“They are all exhibiting depraved indifference to human life through risk of death,” Kearney said of state leaders. “They are guilty 39,000 times over of what I was found guilty of. Where is the justice?”

Kearney added that 18 prisoners have already died of COVID-19.

Antonio Dayter was recently released from the Greene County Correctional Facility, which has the second-largest outbreak in the state. He said prison officials are not following safety rules.

“These inmates are being denied treatment, they are being denied access to their families,” Dayter said.

The union representing correctional officers is also concerned. The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association issued a statement asking the state to ban visitors to the prisons to help prevent the spread of the disease.

Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser, said the governor has already directed the state Department of Corrections to grant early release to over 3,000 inmates, including those with low-level parole violations, others who committed nonviolent, nonsexual offenses and were within 90 days of their release date, and 12 pregnant female inmates.

Azzopardi said once the outbreaks became known, the state deployed rapid testing for inmates and staff at the affected prisons and banned visitors from three facilities: Elmira, Greene and Southport in the Southern Tier, a region affected by community spread of the virus. He said most of the cases are asymptomatic, but the inmates who are sick are being monitored by health officials at the prisons. When visitation resumes, all visitors will need to have proof that they tested negative for the virus within the past seven days.

Cuomo, speaking Monday, said he believes the Department of Corrections has behaved properly.

“Overall, DOCs has done a fantastic job with COVID,” said Cuomo. “We had a lower transmission rate in the state prisons than in the general population, believe it or not.”

During the outbreak last spring, the state’s prisons avoided any major outbreaks. Azzopardi and Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, said they are taking the situation seriously and are being guided by scientific data.


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