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Advocates Push New York Governor for More Releases From Jails and Prisons

The governor’s requirements for release are too narrow in light of the threat from COVID-19, they say.

Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

The last time Donna Robinson saw her daughter was at the end of February, at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York, where she’s been incarcerated since 2017. 

Normally, she visits her about twice a month, traveling nearly 400 miles from where she lives in Buffalo, New York, to spend four or five days with her at a time. The two often spend the entire day just playing Uno and talking. Tears fogging her voice, Robinson told The Appeal, “She’s been holding me up since she’s been away.” 

But like many prisons across the country, Bedford Hills Correctional halted visitation on March 14 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. And Robinson is now worried whether her daughter will ever come home at all.

Robinson’s daughter is anemic and had a stroke years ago, requiring angioplasty, which Robinson fears leaves her vulnerable to the virus. “The [medical] treatment they were getting before was slim to none,” she said. “I’m not too confident that it’s improved now.”

She said that all her daughter received from the prison to protect herself from the virus was a bar of soap. On May 1, her daughter got a package that included a mask, but she said it was simply a piece of T-shirt-like material. 

Even phone calls are now limited. The week of May 4, Robinson said that the facility was on lockdown for 23 hours a day, which meant her daughter only had an hour to make calls and do anything else outside of her cell. The following week, it was on lockdown 21 hours out of the day. “If I don’t hear from her … I can’t function,” she said. “I just need to hear her voice, because if I hear her voice, I know she’s OK.”

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said that the facility is not locked down and prisoners are not being placed in unsafe conditions. 

Speaking slowly through sobs, Robinson said of her daughter, “I need to hold her. I need to feel for that mole she has behind her ear. I want to smell her.”

Six of the top 10 COVID-19 clusters in the country are at jails and prisons. And at least 434 people incarcerated in New York prisons have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

In response, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken some steps to release people in state prisons and jails, but Robinson has joined a growing number of advocates who say his actions don’t go far enough. Thus far, Cuomo has ordered the release of those incarcerated in jail on technical parole violations; those with 90 days or less remaining on their sentence who are 55 years old or older and who were convicted of a crime that is not a violent felony or sex offense; and pregnant women convicted of nonviolent crimes with less than six months remaining of their sentence. 

Out of the thousands of currently incarcerated people that Paul Skip Laisure, attorney-in-charge at Appellate Advocates, has represented, his organization has identified just four who meet all of the conditions for release. 

Michelle Lewin, executive director of the Parole Preparation Project, told The Appeal, “He’s only releasing people who are already scheduled to be released.” 

Laisure’s organization and 15 others sent a letter to the governor on April 3 proposing that a wider set of categories be used to release people: anyone over the age of 50; anyone with significant underlying health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, cancer, and others; those who have less than a year remaining before their conditional release date; and those who were granted parole and whose release is pending. The group also sent the governor a list of 140 incarcerated people it recommended for release, “intended to be no-brainers,” Sean Nuttall, staff attorney at Appellate Advocates, wrote in an email, including those who are particularly vulnerable to the disease, those who had served the majority of their sentences, and those who were scheduled to be released within three months. 

Those categories “would be politically reasonable,” Laisure said. “We’re not talking about people with high recidivism rates.” Neighboring New Jersey, for example, has begun expediting parole review of those with underlying medical conditions for possible release. 

Laisure’s organization has asked the governor to consider other options as well, such as furloughs that would allow someone to be released temporarily during the crisis, or the use of empty hotel space as temporary prison facilities to allow for social distancing. He also sent the governor a list of people he could consider pardoning using his clemency power.

Out of the thousands of currently incarcerated people that Laisure has represented, his organization has identified just four who meet all of the conditions for release. 

Lewin, too, has a list for the governor. “I have hundreds and hundreds of names of people who I think should be released who pose no risk to public safety, who have done tremendous work in prison, who are absolutely ready to come home,” she said. “Some are sick, some are dying.”

She argues that Cuomo has the executive power to release “as many people as he wants overnight.” But beyond that, she wants to see him take executive action to speed up the medical parole process, which now typically takes two months, and make it available to everyone who has underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. She also wants him to put pressure on the parole board to release more people, especially since it has postponed interviews for April and May.

Despite the letters and public action, advocates say they have gotten few substantial responses from Cuomo. “I would say half the emails we send go unanswered,” Lewin said. “I’m feeling very hopeless right now.”

Responding to a request for comment from The Appeal, Cuomo’s office pointed to recent comments by the governor, in which he lauded a recent criminal justice reform bill that, just months earlier, he and the legislature partially rolled back. The state is “incarcerating fewer people than ever before,” he said. “Wherever we can get people out of jails, out of prisons, now we are.”

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has also been slow to distribute protective equipment to incarcerated people. Despite New York State prisoners working to make masks for others, only those who tested positive, were quarantined, or on a work shift were given masks, and then only surgical ones, which are not considered highly effective, according to a May 6 Mother Jones article. Hand sanitizer was considered contraband until recently. 

Without more action, advocates fear the worst. Prisoners “didn’t have good health care and had poor health to begin with. Many are aging,” Laisure said. “Of course there’s going to be more deaths.” One of his clients has already died: Juan Mosquero was the first known COVID-19-related death in the state prison system. 

Lewin’s organization worked with Benjamin Smalls, a 72-year-old incarcerated at Green Haven Correctional Facility for more than 20 years who died of COVID-19 while his application for medical parole was pending. Without more action, Lewin predicted, there will be “mass casualties, a mass humanitarian crisis in prison, mass death.”

Laisure said, “We’re getting desperate phone calls, ‘you got to get me out of here.’” He also noted that it’s not just incarcerated people who will get sick; corrections officers are getting sick, too—there are at least 1,177 positive cases among staff—and can take the disease home to their families and communities. “It’s a petri dish,” he said.

Robinson is fighting as hard as she can for her daughter’s release. She could qualify for release under a bill pending in the state Senate that would require the parole board to release people when their minimum period of incarceration is served, unless there is a clear public safety reason not to. 

But Robinson is fighting for others, too. “I’m advocating for everyone,” she said. “For someone’s husband, someone’s wife, for somebody else’s daughter.”

“Nobody should die behind bars,” she added. “It’s inhumane. It’s unconscionable.”