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Families Urge Cuomo to Release Loved Ones from Prison During COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to the releases he has already ordered, the New York governor can grant commutations to free more incarcerated people to protect them from the disease. He has issued only three since the pandemic began.

Activists rally outside the governor's office on Monday.
Photo by Brian Romero.

Families Urge Cuomo to Release Loved Ones from Prison During COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to the releases he has already ordered, the New York governor can grant commutations to free more incarcerated people to protect them from the disease. He has issued only three since the pandemic began.


More than 1,700 people in prison in New York State have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March. Eighteen incarcerated people have died. Now, family members with loved ones in prison are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to release them in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect lives.

Cuomo responded to the pandemic by ordering the release of about 3,000 people convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes who were within 90 days of their scheduled release date and of pregnant women who were within 180 days of their scheduled release date.

But state law also provides Cuomo with the power to issue commutations, a form of clemency that reduces the sentences of people convicted of crimes. However, Cuomo has issued only three commutations since the pandemic began and only five in all of 2020.

“Look at the track record to see what they have done today, and not what crime they were convicted of,” Kimberly, a member of the Alliance of Families for Justice, said of those incarcerated, one of whom is her fiancé. The Appeal has agreed in some cases to use first names only because of concerns that family members and those incarcerated might face retaliation from prison staff.

“Many people inside, many incarcerated individuals lost lives,” and Cuomo’s inaction, Kimberly said, is “like leaving them to die.”

Asia’s husband Claude was recently approved for parole after more than 23 years in prison following a murder conviction, but he is still awaiting release. “[People in prison] don’t have the capacity to social distance, so it’s just going to happen,” Asia said of the spread of COVID-19. “You can’t run from it. If you can relieve some of the space … it will make a difference, hopefully.”

Asia said Claude began showing symptoms of COVID-19 in April. He lost his sense of taste and smell and a few days later tested positive for the disease.

“He was OK, then he started feeling fatigued and then it was just like oh, my God,” Asia said. “It was scary, just very scary.”

Claude has since recovered, but Asia said she was concerned Claude could get sick again as the country faces a new wave of COVID-19 cases. On Tuesday, the U.S. reported more than 2,100 deaths from the disease, the highest number of deaths in a day since May. In New York State, hospitalizations because of the disease have more than doubled over the last three weeks. 

The combination of COVID-19 and incarceration can be fatal, with a few weeks making the difference between life or death. That was the case for Leonard Carter, who died of COVID-19 just a few weeks before his release date after serving more than 24 years in prison for murder.

“My brother died,” said Cynthia Carter-Young, Leonard’s sister. “He walked into the hospital from the correctional facility, but he left in a body bag. That was his freedom.” She maintains that Leonard was innocent. 

Emelissa’s son, who is 11 months away from his release date, has spent the last four months in Greene Correctional Facility, where there has been a reported COVID-19 outbreak. He has asthma, which may put him at higher risk of getting very sick from the disease, and Emelissa, a member of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, worries for his health. 

She keeps his Christmas stocking mounted above the fireplace, even though she knows he won’t be home for the holidays. “He’s the one who’s missing from the family, but his stocking is actually up there,” Emelissa said.

Tessa said she and her son, who has been incarcerated for over six years, agreed that he should not use the telephones at his prison because they are concerned the phones are not properly sanitized. He is currently at Elmira Correctional Facility, where almost 40 percent of people incarcerated tested positive for COVID-19 last month.

She no longer hears his voice regularly. Instead, she relies on Cuomo’s press briefings, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) website, and calls to DOCCS to receive information about prison conditions, the number of people infected, and other pertinent information regarding releases. But she hasn’t heard much that’s proved helpful. 

“I really listened every day to hear [Cuomo] say something about what was being done in the prison system,” Tessa said. “And day after day after day, nothing was said, as if it didn’t exist.”

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan last week ordered 1,200 incarcerated people eligible for early release, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill that allowed more than 2,000 people to be released from prisons in the state this month. 

“It is a blight on the state’s record that governors across the country have done far more to stem the spread of the virus in their prisons,” said Sophie Gebreselassie, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Prisoners’ Rights Project. “By failing to act, the governor is putting the lives of New Yorkers both within and outside prison walls at risk.”

Progressive lawmakers like Assembly member Harvey Epstein have been pushing Cuomo to use his clemency power while also aiming to make structural changes to the system. Epstein is co-sponsoring legislation known as the “elder parole” bill, which would allow people who are at least 55 years old and have served at least 15 years in prison to apply for parole.

“There’s some real criteria available to provide clemency for people and we’ve been really encouraging our governor and his staff to look at clemency, to look at parole, as a way to save the lives of so many incarcerated New Yorkers,” he said.

For Jolene Russ, those changes can’t come soon enough. Her husband Bryon Russ has been incarcerated for 20 years and has 14 more years left of his prison sentence for robbery and assault.

Jolene said Bryon is rehabilitated and has atoned for the harms he caused. She said she just wants her husband home safe to be with their family.

Bryon applied for a commutation nearly four years ago and is still waiting for Cuomo to take action.

“I’ve always taken comfort that my husband has a release date because there are unfortunately lots of people in state prisons that don’t have a release date,” Jolene said. “But now with [COVID-19], there’s this fear that his sentence could become a death sentence.”