Possible COVID Death In NY Prison Sparks Call For Releases

By Jack Queen
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Law360 (March 30, 2020, 7:29 PM EDT) -- New York prison reform advocates on Monday demanded the state immediately begin releasing elderly and vulnerable inmates, declaring a public health emergency hours after an inmate at Sing Sing Correctional Facility died of a possible COVID-19 infection.

The advocacy groups said during an online press conference that its network of sources had identified 75 possible cases of COVID-19 in New York prisons, far higher than the official tally of 14. Their full-court press comes amid intensifying calls at the state and federal level to stave off catastrophic outbreaks by reducing inmate populations.

State officials are still investigating the cause of the Sing Sing inmate’s death, which if confirmed would be the first COVID-19 fatality in a New York prison. Advocates said two sources inside the facility told them the 58-year-old man died after being placed in isolation with severe respiratory symptoms. He was not given a respirator, the sources said.

"We are furious and terrified," said Dave George, associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign. "It’s just a matter of time before more people die."

The coronavirus is already roaring through New York City’s jails. At Rikers Island, 167 inmates and 37 staff members have tested positive, and two city jail workers have died. New York’s 10 state prisons could be next.

"The rate of spread in New York City jails where I have access to data is frightening," said Robert Cohen, a member of the New York City Board of Correction. "This rapid spread has not yet occurred in state prisons, but it will. Doing nothing means thousands of people will become infected, and many will die."

States and the federal government face increasing pressure to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus at crowded jails and prisons by freeing low-risk inmates.

On Monday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Subcommittee on Crime Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., wrote U.S. Attorney General William Barr urging him to immediately begin releasing vulnerable prisoners.

Nadler and Bass cited the first COVID-19 death in a low-security Bureau of Prisons facility in Louisiana on Friday, where a 49-year old inmate died.

The group of New York advocates includes more than a dozen criminal justice reform organizations and State Assembly Member Carmen De La Rosa, who called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to speed along clemency applications and parole hearings, which sources told Law360 have been postponed at several prisons.

"We know there is an immense number of inmates who have pre-existing conditions," De La Rosa said. "And we know these people are suffering and living in fear."

The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is limiting the virus’ spread by suspending prisoner transports, intakes from county jails and all visitations, the agency said in an email Monday. Guards only wear masks in medical situations, the agency said, citing health department guidance. The DOCCS also said civilian staff have been ordered to stay home for two weeks.

Family members of New York inmates, however, painted a grim picture of conditions inside the state’s prisons, which they said lacked intensive care beds, ventilators and adequate personal protective equipment to limit transmission by corrections staff. Fear runs deep, both inside and outside prison walls.

"My daughter is vulnerable to catching and dying of the coronavirus, which would leave me to care for her five children," said Long Island resident Lavonia Scaggs. "She says, ‘Mom, I’m afraid. People are crying because they are uninformed.’"

On Saturday, New York prison officials said they would release 1,100 people locked up in jails for parole violations. But the governor’s office hasn’t announced plans for more than 10,000 New York prison inmates over the age of 50, who are particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

Cuomo said last week that his office is considering acting on pending clemency applications but did not offer specifics. His office declined to comment Monday.

New Paltz resident Michelle Lind said her 73-year-old husband’s clemency application has been sitting on the governor’s desk since 2016.

"My cry is: Let them go. Freedom," she said. "Please don’t let my husband die."

The New York Board of Parole is also moving in the wrong direction by postponing release hearings in at least four facilities, three of which are medium-security prisons, advocates said.

"The parole board cannot deal with this crisis," RAPP director Jose Saldana told Law360 Monday. "Rather than expediting hearings ... they are postponing them."

The Washington, Fishkill, Cayuga and Bedford Hills correctional facilities have all postponed hearings for unspecified reasons, Saldana said, citing attorneys representing parole-eligible clients.

The delays could affect hundreds of prisoners, along with families who fear their loved ones will not be protected from the coronavirus on the inside.

"My father was granted parole and had a set date to come out in 2017 until his parole decision was reversed," New York City resident Kharon Benson said. "He is still fighting to come home. A decision on his appeal was scheduled for last week. And now because of COVID-19, it’s been pushed back."

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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