After a Year of Neglect, New York Still Needs a Plan to Address the COVID Crisis in Prisons

The following commentary is by Martha Ackelsberg, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government and of the Study of Women and Gender, emerita, Smith College; and Advisory Board Member, Alliance of Families for Justice.

Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, medical and other personnel warned that prisons—where medical facilities tend to be limited and poor, sanitary supplies are lacking, and social distancing is virtually impossible—were likely to be perfect petri dishes for the spread of the virus. Advocates for the health and safety of those imprisoned argued for the release of all those who were close to the end of their sentences, who were being held for minor/non-violent offenses, and who were especially vulnerable because of pre-existing conditions. A year on, their warnings have proved only too accurate (see also “U.S. Slow to Shield Its Inmates from Virus,” New York Times (Feb.28, 2021, p. 1) but the State has done very little in the way of releasing those imprisoned or otherwise attending to the needs of the vulnerable. Now, amid a national scandal about Governor Cuomo’s handling of and misinformation about COVID in nursing homes, we still seek answers about the similar but under-the-radar crisis in New York’s prisons.

Until very recently, very little was done to protect those behind prison walls. Information coming from family members of those incarcerated indicated that hand sanitizer, masks, and other protective equipment—if made available at all—has been inadequate. Social distancing is impossible. And in many facilities, the correctional officers are reported not to be wearing masks or gloves when they interact with those who are incarcerated, including when they escort groups of people from their cells to bathrooms for showers, etc. Between March and August of last year, and then since December 2020, no visitors have been allowed into prisons, so any infections that have entered the prisons most likely have come from COs and other staff members who go in and out of the facilities. That they are not wearing protective equipment, and that some are coming to work sick, has, no doubt, led to the rapid spread of the virus within the state prisons. But because there was so little testing of those incarcerated up until this January when DOCCS (the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision) claims to have implemented widespread testing, and with no transparency about testing rates for COs, the state has no way of knowing how bad the situation is, or of isolating those who are infected and could be infecting others. This level of neglect is unconscionable.

At the same time, because of new DOCCS policies related to COVID, incarcerated people and their families have suffered profoundly because they have been mostly cut off from each other for nearly a year, with only a short August to December window of severely restricted visits. The essential Family Reunion Program, which provides for overnight visits for families at state prisons, has been shut down the entire time with no discussion of reopening in sight. And for no reason whatsoever other than a seeming desire to be cruel, New York State has suspended marriage license applications in prisons since March 2020, despite municipalities’ making provisions for the rest of the population. And now that the Governor is announcing plans to open movie theaters, expand access to gyms and indoor dining, and to open summer camps, there can be no reason whatsoever not to open the prisons to visits once again and to reinstate the Family Reunion Program.

To compound the crisis, Governor Cuomo and DOCCS have not made any clear plans for vaccine access for the nearly 34,000 people incarcerated in New York’s prisons, who are imprisoned in spaces and conditions that demand they be provided early access to vaccines. In early February of this year (2021), a lawsuit was filed against Governor Cuomo and NYS Health Commissioner Zucker to force them to allow incarcerated individuals to receive one of the COVID-19 vaccines. The Governor deflected requests to DOCCS, which, according to comments provided to Politico, “is still working with NYS DOH on a plan” for vaccine access. It’s more of the same -- deflection, lack of clear plans after many months, and disregard for the lives of incarcerated people. Requests for information to DOCCS and Governor Cuomo continue to go effectively unanswered.

To date, state prison facilities have not been obeying CDC guidelines on preparation, prevention, and protection. It is not too late to provide adequate testing, health care and sanitizing necessities to those inside, to make vaccines widely available, and to create visiting arrangements that will be respectful both of those imprisoned and of their family members. To do otherwise is to continue and to further institute policies that can only be described as cruel and inhumane. Incarcerated New Yorkers and their families deserve better, much better.

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Alliance of Families for Justice

AFJ is powered by and for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers and allies across the state.