Late last month, a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that pregnant women in New York prisons would be released if they had fewer than six months left on their sentences and were convicted of nonviolent offenses.
But more than two weeks later, at least four pregnant women remain at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where the coronavirus outbreak has infected 42 people and killed one. The delay has caused two other women who were eligible for release to give birth in custody, according to the Legal Aid Society.
“We do not know if it is bureaucratic incompetence, a disingenuous interpretation of Cuomo’s direction, or simply the criminal justice system’s inhumane rigidity that is keeping these women locked up,” said Sophie Gebreselassie, staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. “What we do know is that they and their soon to be born children remain at risk of grievous harm and should be released immediately.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said that eight pregnant or postpartum women have been released from Bedford Hills and two more individuals are expected to transition to the community next week. The department is continuing to review cases for eligibility.
Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Prisons are perfect breeding grounds for the coronavirus, with people crammed together into confined spaces with limited control over cleaning supplies or protective equipment like masks. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, more than 28,000 prisoners have been infected and 393 have died, according to a tally kept by the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, though it is unknown how many of those affected are women.
In light of the public health crisis, advocates have urged officials to take swift action to release the most vulnerable: the elderly, people with underlying health conditions and pregnant women.
But for some families, the efforts have not moved fast enough.
Virginia, who asked to only use her first name, said she was relieved when she heard that New York’s pregnant inmates were going to be released. Her 19-year-old daughter, imprisoned at Bedford Hills, was nearing her due date and was terrified of going into labor behind bars.
“She was very nervous, very scared to give birth,” she said.
Lawyers for Virginia’s daughter say she is eligible for release under Cuomo’s guidelines. But the call never came.
On Friday, the teen gave birth to a baby girl at a local hospital with correctional officers in the room. In a few days, she will be returned to Bedford Hills, where she will stay in a trailer with her newborn to quarantine, Virginia said.
Virginia urged Cuomo to immediately release her daughter, who has severe asthma, so she can care for her newborn in a safe environment. Once freed, Virginia said, the new mom and infant will return to their house in a small upstate town where there are few COVID-19 cases.
“I want my daughter home safe,” Virginia said. “It’s not that I’m trying to take away the punishment. I’m trying to protect my child.”
Legal Aid said another client gave birth in custody on May 10 ― about a week before she was officially due to be released. According to the woman’s lawyers, she was guarded by eight different corrections officers while in the hospital and is now in quarantine for the remaining few days of her sentence. Her family is worried about the impact of severe isolation during the postpartum period.
Among the remaining pregnant women at Bedford Hills is a woman who is due to give birth in a month. Her lawyers believe that an outstanding warrant stemming from a small unpaid fine and restitution balance may be preventing her from returning home to her family.
“In essence, a nominal sum may stand in the way of her release from Bedford Hills, a prison with one of the higher rates of incidence of COVID-19 in the DOCCS system, to her mother’s home in a western New York town with relatively few cases,” Legal Aid said in a statement.
Another pregnant woman at Bedford Hills has high blood pressure and gestational diabetes. She is due to give birth just one week before her official release date.
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