With New York at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings have become essential viewing in many households across the U.S. as the death toll ticks up. Over 23,000 lives have already been lost to COVID-19 — 10,000 in New York state alone.
When recently asked by a reporter if he was becoming numb to the numbers, the Democratic governor said, “Although you cannot save everyone, the question is are you saving everyone you can save? And there, the answer is yes. And I take some solace in that.”
Yet there is one group whom Cuomo has not yet saved through his efforts to stem the pandemic — the 43,000 people in New York state prisons. On March 30, Juan Mosquero, a 58-year-old incarcerated at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining was the first person to die in custody from complications related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Since then, two more incarcerated people and one prison officer have died. As of April 13, there were 720 positive cases of COVID-19 among corrections staff and people incarcerated across the 52 state prisons.
The growing pandemic in our prisons is a matter of life-and-death urgency. I know the urgency -- I spent the last 12 years of my 24-and-a-half years in prison at Sing Sing.
I knew Juan Mosquero. During my time in prison, my two greatest fears were getting sick or dying there. Juan suffered both.
As our country grapples with this unprecedented crisis, we can’t leave behind the incarcerated people who are members of our community and are equally deserving of care as all of our neighbors and friends.
“The growing pandemic in our prisons is a matter of life and death urgency.”
There is a prison saying that goes like this: “If I am going to die in prison, please give me a chance to fight.” There is no fight to be waged against COVID-19 behind bars. Prisons are not designed for any of the policies we rely on to “flatten the curve.”
Social distancing is impossible when 500 people move in a line from housing units to the mess hall or the yard. Going into “lockdown mode” — containing people inside single cells — is not a viable option when many people in prison are in dorm-style housing. Staff shortages and the risk of virus transmission by the thousands of workers who come in and out of the prisons daily make it impossible to create a sealed environment. I can tell you that even in ordinary times, every cough or sneeze causes stress and fear of illness among the men and women incarcerated. That is multiplied exponentially in the face of this extraordinary crisis.
During my time in prison, I earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and graduated summa cum laude and as valedictorian. I obtained a master’s degree in professional studies and a host of other certificates. I co-founded, along with 10 other men, Voices From Within, a multimedia and educational initiative to combat gun violence in underserved communities.
Some of my classmates, my colleagues, my mentors and friends are still at Sing Sing today. They are worried, just as I am, that they will contract coronavirus and die. Every day, they are using communal bathrooms, showers, tables and kitchens. Friends have told me they are covering phones with a personal sock so they can find out if family members are healthy and safe during these chaotic times. Do they not also deserve to be protected from a virus we know kills?
Yes, some people in prison have been convicted of a serious crime, just like I was. In fact, many people reading this right now may think I should have never been released. But in New York, and many other states, more than 90% of those incarcerated will eventually be released back into our communities, regardless of the designated status of the crime they have been convicted of.
That we have instituted a one-size-fits-all paradigm ― between good and bad, criminal and innocent, incarcerated and free ― as the deciding criterion to determine who lives or dies in this pandemic is not only seriously problematic, but morally wrong. And our complacency in this crisis toward incarcerated people is made even more corrupt considering what we know about the American justice system, and how our history of racial terror and disproportionate harm toward low-income communities has skewed who has entered our prisons in the first place.
“That we have instituted a one-size-fits all paradigm ― between good and bad, criminal and innocent, incarcerated and free ― as the deciding criterion to determine who lives or dies in this pandemic is not only seriously problematic, but morally wrong.”
It is time for action. Cuomo can take immediate steps to release people from prison. He can grant good-time credit to over 7,000 people within a year of the end of their sentences. He can consider release for the 5,182 people incarcerated in state prison solely on technical parole violations. He can use medical parole. He can conduct an expedited review for release of the 9,550 incarcerated individuals aged 50 and above who have already spent years behind bars. Finally, the governor can and should exercise his power of clemency to release men and women whose decades of good conduct in prison indicate that they will add to ― not detract from ― the safety of their families and communities.
If he acts, Cuomo will be in good company. Already, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has fast-tracked the release of almost 3,500 people from prison. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) released more than 900 prisoners in response to the pandemic. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) authorized medical furloughs. The constant refrain against such measures is that releasing people will compromise public safety. Yet history tells us otherwise. Over two decades, New York reduced its prison population by 41% and crime dropped, as well.
In the face of COVID-19, public health is public safety. Our nation’s overall success in battling the coronavirus depends on how we respond, not just in communities, but also behind the walls of jails, prisons and detention centers. Cuomo can save people in prison by being more aware of that and taking action now.
Sean Kyler is an associate on the Vera Institute of Justice’s Strategy and New Initiatives team. He earned a bachelor’s from Mercy College and a master’s from New York Theological Seminary. He lives in New York City.
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