NY Voters: Hold Leaders Accountable For Failing Incarcerated People During Covid Crisis & Demand All New Yorkers Are Enfranchised

The following is an essay by By: Judith Plaskow, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Manhattan College & Volunteer for Alliance of Families for Justice

Even as the number of coronavirus cases is seriously declining in New York State, its jails and prisons have served as perfect petri dishes for the incubation of the virus. Overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, the impossibility of social distancing, and the unavailability of basic protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer have left incarcerated people highly vulnerable to Covid-19. Many people inside are elderly, have preexisting health conditions, and have been forced to live with inadequate prison health services for many years, factors that magnify their vulnerability.

According to the Department of Corrections (DOCCS) website, there have been 820 Covid cases among the incarcerated population. However, as the Governor himself pointed out in a late July press conference, most of the testing has been conducted on inmates over age 55. An earlier report published on June 17 in the New York Times stated that about 3% of the overall New York incarcerated population had been tested, with about 40% returning positive results. So the regularly updated DOCCS numbers clearly represent a profound underestimate.

Beyond the fears of infection and death that this situation has generated for incarcerated people, they have been left to face these fears in isolation without even the usual support on which they might otherwise depend. Visitation and family reunion programs (overnight visits) at all correctional facilities were suspended for nearly five month, with only a heavily curtailed visitation program resuming on August 5th. People are permitted to receive only a small number of packages a month so that access to fresh and healthy food coming in from outside is largely unavailable — at precisely the moment when it is most essential for maintaining decent baseline health. Governor Cuomo has not come anywhere near to fulfilling his promise to release 3,000 incarcerated people. Instead, even some people who were within sight of their expected release dates were suddenly told they could not leave.

As limited visits resume this month — after five months of no in-person family contact — they will be limited to about fours hours — at the discretion of the on-duty Corrections Officer, even though many family members need to travel more than three times that amount of time to visit their loved ones. Only four visitors are allowed per visit, including one “lap child” under, and the children’s play area is closed. And, to the great pain of family that have been long separated, the Family Reunification Program that allows couples extended time for overnight visits is suspended until further notice. These rules are formulated under the guise of protecting everyone from Covid-19. But given that many correctional officers do not wear masks and that prisons have failed to make the most basic provision for social distancing and safety during the months of lockdown, it is hard to take current claims about the importance of protection seriously. Rather, the rules seem like the latest tactic in an ongoing effort to restrict visits and make them more difficult.

These dehumanizing conditions are elements of a larger context in which incarcerated people are deprived of a basic right as US citizens, which would allow them to hold accountable those elected officials who have made their living conditions, and the experiences of their families, so deplorable: the right to vote. In 2018, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order extending voting rights to people on parole, but the legislature has not yet turned his order into law and, before Covid, had just begun to consider the possibility of granting the vote to currently incarcerated persons. Given the disproportionate percentage of people in jails and prisons who are people of color, it is difficult not to see felon disenfranchisement as part of a broader effort to deprive people of color of the right to vote. It is certainly part of a system that keeps incarcerated people from having a voice in shaping the conditions that impact their lives and that allows politicians to ignore their interests and concerns.

Fortunately, while those on the inside may not be able to vote, those outside who are appalled by the long-standing conditions starkly exposed by Covid-19 can and must make our voices heard. Governor Cuomo needs finally to follow through on his promise to release 3,000 people from jails and prisons, which is far fewer than the 8,000 incarcerated people that Governor Newsom of California, who seems to actually get (or at least better understand) the serious threat that Covid poses to incarcerated people. People in jails and prisons must receive the protective equipment and care they need to stay safe and well. Incarcerated people and their families should be able to meet in conditions of dignity and safety that allow them to maintain personal and community bonds. And enfranchising all citizens should be a priority in Albany as senators and assembly members move to imaging a post-pandemic world.

AFJ staff and volunteers will be holding Get Out The Vote events for formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and their families from 10/24 through Election Day in Harlem and Brooklyn. AFJ also held voter registration events from the beginning of August until voter registration closed in New York.

AFJ is powered by and for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers and allies across the state. www.afj-ny.org