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Isolation, Death, And Grief at a New York Women’s Prison

Coronavirus infections climb at the state’s only maximum-security facility for women, and those held there fear for their safety.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Getty Images.

This piece is a collaboration with Dissent magazine.

The afternoon of April 29 marked 48 hours since Virginia last spoke to her 19-year-old daughter Jamie, who is incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the only maximum security prison for women in New York State. (The Appeal has changed Jamie’s name because she was sentenced as a youthful offender.)

Jamie, who was then 38 weeks pregnant and asthmatic, usually called her mother twice a day. Virginia feared that the silence meant that she went into labor, or that she got sick, or that she was being punished. 

An administrator twice assured Virginia that Jamie hadn’t left the facility. But she had. On April 27, corrections officials had taken her to the hospital in Mount Vernon for a regular checkup, where she learned that she was two centimeters dilated. When she returned to Bedford Hills, she was made to quarantine, in accordance with the prison’s policy on COVID-19. She spent four days in a trailer designated for family visits, without any of her belongings or access to a phone. When she was finally able to call her mother on May 1, she reported that she spent the days in excruciating pain and petrified of going into labor alone. 

On April 30, responding to growing calls from advocates and families over the safety of prisoners amid a pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that pregnant women—convicted of nonviolent crimes with less than six months left in their sentence—would be released. According to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), on May 4, three pregnant women have been released in the state.

On May 5, the Legal Aid Society announced that it had secured the release of eight pregnant women at Bedford Hills; Virginia told The Appeal Jamie was among them. As of Monday, she and five others remain incarcerated.

“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,” Sophie Gebreselassie, staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at Legal Aid, said in a press release. “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.” 

On Friday, Jamie gave birth to a baby girl she named Madison. Virginia was able to visit them in the hospital, wearing a mask, but she wasn’t able to take a picture of Jamie and Madison together and hasn’t been able to speak to her after her visit ended. 

“I just want my daughter and my granddaughter home safe,” Virginia said. “I’m not trying to take away from punishments. I just hope that anyone who has a child, or even a heart, understands what I’m going through, and what Jamie is going through.” 

Almost 650 women are incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, though it is not just pregnant women who are concerned for their safety.  In written conversations with The Appeal and Dissent, 24 women incarcerated at the prison relayed stories of panic and fear over the prison’s response to COVID-19. Cleaning products and masks are difficult to obtain, they said, a reshuffling of incarcerated people caught many off-guard and increased their stress, and the care for those who are sick is isolation-based and woefully inadequate.

Bedford Hills has already seen one COVID-19-related death. On April 28, 61-year-old Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay died of the disease. The DOCCS confirmed her death.

According to a letter to her sister read aloud at her vigil, a month before her death, Benson-Seay wrote that her unit of 75 women did not have sanitizer, only watered-down bleach, and that she feared social distancing was impossible inside. “I cannot afford to get the virus. It may kill me. Please help.”

Two weeks before Benson-Seay’s death, Sheila Davalloo, who has been incarcerated at Bedford for 16 years and has a degree in public health and epidemiology, wrote that Benson-Seay had been “laying in bed for days and could hardly move. She has an underlying heart condition and her eyes were glassy.” Davalloo said it took days for a correctional officer to notice she was ill and take action. 

Benson-Seay died alone in the hospital. One of her best friends, Vanessa Santiago, relayed that Benson-Seay’s family, along with her doctors, had asked for a video call to say goodbye. The officer on duty denied the request but ultimately allowed them to pray over the phone. 

“So not only are they letting her die, they’re not even letting her have her last wish,” Santiago said. 

Sammie Werkheiser, who lived on Benson-Seay’s floor before she was released from Bedford Hills in February of last year and whose wife, Julie Werkheiser, remains incarcerated, expressed the difficulties facing those who are elderly in prison. 

“Old women in prison need help,” she said. “They lose their glasses, they need an escort to the commissary. They hide their bruises and injuries because they are petrified to go into long-term care and never see their friends again.”

But the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign (RAPP) said in a statement that, “the Governor’s plan to release a select few older people (aged 55 and older), within 90 days of release, who are only convicted of non-violent crimes excludes 98 percent of all 9,550 incarcerated older people. As of April 30, 2020, only 116 older people in NYS prisons have been released.”

In response to the pandemic, the majority of housing units at Bedford Hills were locked down in mid-April for 23 hours daily, leaving only a frantic hour for the email kiosk, news on TV, laundry, and phones, women incarcerated there said. And on April 30, two days after Benson-Seay’s death, as grief and outrage grew within the population, the administration at Bedford Hills moved around a number of people held in the prison.

“The administration has moved countless inmates in an effort to maintain control in an uncontrollable situation,” Kelly Harnett, who has been incarcerated for five years, wrote.

Two distraught women were placed under observation, watched around the clock in an empty cell, Harnett explained. “Being that these particular inmates could not withstand the perils of their new housing environment, this left them with no choice, other than requesting to go to [observation]. All inmates were informed that if they refuse to move, they will go to SHU (solitary confinement).”

Incarcerated people taken to the infirmary face a different sort of confinement. Gloria Nelligan is 51 and has been incarcerated for six years. Her coronavirus test came back negative at an outside hospital. But after returning to Bedford Hills, she was taken to an isolation room and told she would be kept in a 72-hour hold. Seventy-two hours turned into 143 hours in the small locked room, without any of her belongings or a way to contact her daughter. The isolation deeply affected Nelligan, who said, “I haven’t had a panic attack in six years. I’m having them 3 or more times a day now and my eyes won’t stop crying.”

Gloria’s daughter, Amelia Nelligan, who lives in Texas, learned on Easter that her mother was at a Westchester County hospital. But the many times she called the hospital, she said they wouldn’t give her any information or put her mother on the phone. She was also unable to reach her mother while she was in isolation back in Bedford. The experience was harrowing. 

“Just because she’s in prison doesn’t mean she isn’t a human being,” she said. “And I’m a human being, too.”

Davalloo, who tested positive for the disease, was moved to a dormitory-style room in the infirmary so filthy that she asked one of the other occupants when it had last been cleaned. 

“She said not since she moved in there, which was 10 days ago. I had to bide my time, hoping to see the right officer … Finally, after [another] twelve days we were given bleach solution and a mop to clean our room.” 

Four other women also wrote that they were not given cleaning supplies and that their rooms were not cleaned for the entirety of their stay in the infirmary. 

Jonitha Alston, who has been incarcerated at Bedford Hills for two years, tested positive for the virus. “While I was in this long term care isolation room,” she wrote, “the officers and nurses treated me like a ‘germ.’ They did not check on me or really speak to me.”  

She was then transferred to a dormitory room in the infirmary. Two older women, who are 58 and 72, were brought in about 30 minutes later, Alston said; they told her they were on their 17th day of quarantine. They did not respond to requests for comment.

“I was afraid of reinfecting them,” Alston wrote. “I didn’t know if this was safe. We asked questions but nobody would answer or tell us anything. For four days, we had to shower in a clogged shower with water ankle-length. [The 58-year-old woman] is diabetic and this was dangerous for her (especially if her foot got infected). We requested bleach to clean everyday … [but] they denied us cleaning supplies (we shared the toilet, sink and clogged shower).” 

At the beginning of April, an incarcerated woman was disciplined for wearing a makeshift mask while serving food to other prisoners. Many women reported that about a week later, they were given one mask—meant to be used for eight hours according to the package—that they used for two weeks straight. On April 11, prison officials began encouraging the use of state-issued handkerchiefs as masks. Five women told The Appeal the handkerchiefs barely fit around their heads and, moreover, were hard to obtain. 

In response to multiple phone calls requesting comment, the prison told The Appeal, “We at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility care deeply about the health of the incarcerated population and staff.”

The DOCCS reported that 42 women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility have tested positive for the virus as of Friday. Women inside contend that the number of women who are sick is surely higher. Nancy Tebo, who has been incarcerated for 10 years and who is 58-years-old, wrote, there’s “the infirmary, long-term care, satellite, and a unit they opened just for those with the virus … They moved 60 women off that unit to other units to make room in order to have more places to put the overflow.”

VOCAL-NY and RAPP held a virtual and in-person vigil and press conference to honor Benson-Seay’s life on Friday. Together with other advocate groups, previously incarcerated women, and the families of those incarcerated, they are demanding the immediate release of vulnerable women, “decent and adequate nutrition, sanitary supplies, and medical care,” and “no use of solitary confinement.”

Streaming from a grassy patch across from Bedford’s gates, members chanted “stop the spread, free them now,” and played songs in remembrance of Benson-Seay.   

“Governor Cuomo, you must do the right thing,” Chaplain Edie Mayfield from the New York State Chaplain Task Force said on the call. She led a prayer for Benson-Seay. “This is a humanitarian issue. Failure to do so will result in needless loss of life. We are calling on you to grant broad clemencies to incarcerated New Yorkers who are vulnerable to his virus. Release is the only effective means to protect the people with the greatest vulnerability.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the classification of crime for which Jamie was convicted. She was not convicted of a violent crime.