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Andrew Cuomo Promised Criminal Justice Reforms, But New York Is Still Waiting

The governor has rolled back bail reform, not released enough prisoners during the pandemic, and failed to rein in police abuses, advocates and prisoners say.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference on Sept. 8, 2020Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

When Joshua Harris first heard about the job bottling hand sanitizer in Shawangunk Correctional Facility, it seemed too good to pass up. Jobs in prisons pay notoriously low wages to incarcerated workers—in New York State, base wages are between 16 and 65 cents per hour—yet this job could include a bonus, Harris said. The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) told The Appeal it pays bonus wages in certain cases

The main selling point for Harris, however, was the promise of a letter of commendation: In exchange for taking on the work of bottling the hand sanitizer touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo early in the pandemic, Harris says corrections staff told the men they’d earn letters they could later use to supplement parole hearings or clemency applications.

“These letters go a long way in terms of guys trying to receive clemency,” Harris, 34, told The Appeal. Harris has served 11 years of an 18-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter and second-degree weapon possession and hopes to win early release.

But after two months of bottling hand sanitizer, as people in the prison became sick with COVID-19, Harris says staff denied workers the commendation letters they initially promised to make the job more attractive. Harris says corrections workers told him the letters would be signed by Shawangunk Superintendent Jaifa Collado and DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci. But when Collado came to visit the men working the bottling line this summer, she said she had no intention of writing the letters. 

“She just said she’s not writing them; she heard rumors about this but that was never official, that never came from her,” Harris said.

According to DOCCS, the department still plans to issue letters to those who worked the hand sanitizer job. But the bottling line was shut down entirely in September, and as of late October, Harris says he and the other workers have seen no sign of the letters. “Guys tried to get letters and the superintendent wouldn’t budge,” he says. “It was an uphill battle and guys just kind of gave up.” 

This hit hard for Harris, who has applied for clemency before but heard nothing from the governor’s office. Even if Harris could get that letter from Collado and Annucci, Cuomo has given incarcerated people and their advocates little reason to believe he’ll show mercy, even during a global pandemic that is now seeing a resurgence in the state’s prisons. In 2019, the governor granted no commutations, despite receiving more than 6,000 applications between 2016 and August 2019. In 2020, following pressure from advocates and community groups, Cuomo has granted slightly more clemencies—11 in January, three in June—an uptick that looks generous only when compared to a year of not exercising his executive clemency power at all. 

“In New York we believe in giving a second chance to deserving individuals who have demonstrated remorse and undergone successful rehabilitation,” Cuomo said in a June 17 statement. But advocates say his actions don’t match this redemptive tone.

“The governor has never been a progressive on criminal justice issues,” said Claudia Trupp, a senior supervising attorney at the Center for Appellate Litigation, which represents clients in New York prisons seeking to earn clemency or early release. “He’s just not at the forefront of these issues. I don’t think they are particularly of interest to him.”

This inaction is even more troubling as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout correctional facilities, which are ill-equipped to cope with the disease. In late July, Harris says he issued a grievance to DOCCS regarding the lack of social distancing on the hand sanitizer bottling line, which was rarely sanitized, after three of his co-workers got sick. After the men tested positive for COVID-19, Harris says staff “put up boxes in between us, as if this was supposed to protect us or help stop the spread.” Just days after he filed the grievance, Harris himself tested positive. Months later, he struggles with daily headaches and a chronic cough.

As of Oct. 17, there have been 18 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths among people held in New York State prisons and five staff deaths. As of Nov. 23, 1,676 prison staff members and 1,713 incarcerated people have been infected with the disease. According to DOCCS data, 101 people at Shawangunk have tested positive, and one has died, as of Nov. 20. There’s little reason to believe, as the pandemic drags on, that this number won’t continue to rise; nationally, more than 1,400 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons have died of COVID-related causes.

“This is really about just trying to save lives … if you’re [COVID-19] vulnerable, you’re [COVID-19] vulnerable,” says Trupp. “Our clients don’t deserve to die in prison simply because they committed a crime. They weren’t sentenced to a death sentence. For people who are truly vulnerable and are at extreme risk … the unresponsiveness of the courts and politicians has been really disappointing.”

Although roughly 3,055 people have been released early from New York state prisons as of late October because of the pandemic, after enormous outside pressure, this is hardly the large-scale decarceration effort advocates say is necessary. One major barrier, Trupp says, is how narrow the criteria for release established by Cuomo’s office are. In order to be eligible, a person must already be within 90 days of their planned release date, be convicted of a nonviolent offense, and be over 55. Some pregnant women were also deemed eligible for release, following public criticism. Trupp says her office has filed roughly 30 petitions for release on behalf of clients, but only two or three have been granted by the governor. 

“The criteria was so narrow that it really didn’t reach a lot of people, and yet the governor’s office was touting it as a great diminishment of our prison population,” Trupp tells The Appeal. “I really didn’t see that.” 

Trupp added: “There has been some diminution of the prison population, but just not what you would expect in my view if you were really taking the steps to prevent the most harm to the most people.”

In response to this criticism, a representative from the governor’s office emphasized to The Appeal that the state’s total correctional population is the lowest it has been since 1986, and cast these releases as a use of the governor’s clemency power. This decrease has been attributed to a combination of declining crime rates, decreases in felony arrests in New York City, and the expansion of prison diversion programs, among other factors, many of which preceded or were unrelated to Cuomo’s tenure. On Oct. 27, activists held protests at Elmira Correctional Facility, where 603 people have tested positive, and outside the Capitol in Albany, demanding that Cuomo release elderly and vulnerable incarcerated people.

For years, Cuomo has talked the talk of a politician who is well aware of the groundswell of public support for criminal justice reform. His 2018 State of the State address boasted “a sweeping, five-pronged reform package to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system,” including an effort to reduce the use of cash bail for people faced with misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges.

Yet two years later, as the chaos of COVID-19 tore through New York City, killing thousands, Cuomo pushed to roll back nascent bail reform efforts. This erosion of hard fought, years-long efforts of advocates to reduce the use of cash bail came at a time when the unnecessary detention of people who pose no threat to public safety was deadly because of the virus’s spread, and as law enforcement stakeholders across the country took action to reduce jail and prison populations. 

And in spite of years of work from community groups urging Cuomo to rein in abusive police practices, it wasn’t until June—following weeks of protests throughout the state after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—that the governor signed the Safer NY Act. The series of bills intend to increase transparency and accountability among police departments statewide.  

On the eve of August’s March on Washington, Cuomo’s office issued a statement: “I stand in solidarity with the thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding police reform, criminal justice reform, and racial equality, shouting in one collective voice: Black Lives Matter.” 

But the sentiment hardly squares with Cuomo’s record and does nothing to help Black people like Harris, who has a wife and children he’s eager to get home to. He says he has spent his time behind bars doing everything he can to better himself and prove he is ready for release, and is disappointed that he can’t seem to get a response to his clemency application. 

“People really do change. … It’s disheartening to not even get a simple response, not even a ‘No, try again,’” he said.

“I can’t fix my past. I can’t give back what I’ve taken away,” Harris added. “But I’ve chosen tremendous growth.”