The only way to combat Covid-19 is to begin releasing those of us who are most at risk of being harmed by and dying from the virus
In my nearly 35 years of incarceration, I have never seen anything like the fear, uncertainty, and sense of doom caused by the introduction of Covid-19 into the prison environment. Not even the HIV/Aids and tuberculosis crises of the 1980s and 1990s caused this much hysteria and level of dread. With New York being the center of the virus in the United States, and correctional facilities being incubators for it, we are all terrified about being the next coronavirus victim behind bars.
To prevent the spread of the virus, the state prison system closed all educational and vocational programs. Religious services were also suspended. Non-essential staff was told to stay home. The only places where there are still large gatherings are the mess hall and prison yards.
Although I have personally stopped going to the mess hall to avoid large crowds due to my age, the reality is that because of their physical structures and large populations, prisons can and do serve as hotbeds for disease. There are more than 2,000 incarcerated people and staff packed into the prison in which I’m currently confined. Social distancing is literally impossible here, making the chance of me and other incarcerated people and staff contracting the virus even more likely than in the outside world.
Every day there is a new report of someone testing positive for the virus, creating a level of fear that is unhealthy for an ageing prison population who are already suffering from so many other debilitating illnesses. As of 15 April, there were 150 incarcerated people and 664 staff who have tested positive. Five incarcerated people and one staff person have tragically died. We suspect these numbers are far lower than the reality we’re witnessing every day.
Sadly, the spread of the virus throughout New York state prisons can be directly linked to the system’s mishandling of the crisis when it first began. Suspending family visits was viewed as a necessary preventive measure. But family members were not the only ones who could introduce the virus into the prison environment. The prison authorities failed to acknowledge that if the virus did enter the prison system, staff would bring it in.
All staff entering and leaving the prisons should have been immediately mandated to wear masks and other protective gear. The same should have been done for incarcerated people. The prison system finally came around to issuing these orders but they were too late, the virus is already here, and it is beginning to spread like wildfire.
At this point, the only way to combat Covid-19 in New York state prisons is to begin releasing those of us who are most at risk of being harmed by and dying from the virus – people aged 55 and older and those with serious underlying health conditions. As a 57-year-old grandfather whose physiological age is far greater after so much time behind bars, I fall into these high-risk categories. Like so many others, I’ve spent decades in prison changing my life for the better, and am more than ready to be an asset to my community, especially in uncertain times like these.
As an agency of the state, the New York state prison system is under the control of Governor Andrew Cuomo. It is up to the governor to correct New York’s Covid-19 missteps and prevent the potential deaths of thousands of incarcerated people.
He needs to immediately implement the recommendations to release people outlined by the nation’s leading public health professionals, medical experts and criminal justice practitioners.