Last Thursday, advocates, elected officials and family members of those who are incarcerated rallied virtually to demand that Governor Andrew Cuomo exercise his clemency powers. They also asked for answers from corrections authorities about the COVID-19 outbreak.
According to Tatiana Hill, an organizer with the grassroots advocacy group VOCAL-NY, 493 incarcerated people in the state prison system have tested positive for COVID-19, including 20 who have died from the coronavirus. More than 900 guards have also contracted the virus.
At Rikers Island, 357 people and 1,300 guards have tested positive for COVID-19, she said.
“There are thousands more who are positive, but just haven’t been tested,” Hill said. “We’re talking about the epicenter of the epicenter of this pandemic in our city.”
Emma Pierre, whose husband is currently incarcerated at Eastern Correctional Facility, said loved ones behind bars are not safe and don’t have a voice to speak up for themselves.
Pierre, who is a member of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) Campaign, noted that they cannot social distance and have not had visitors in two months.
“Last week, my husband was given a mask so thin, they might as well have given him a tissue,” she said.
Pierre said she watches Cuomo’s briefings everyday, but doesn’t hear any mention of clemency or compassionate release. She said it’s “sad that he’s letting men and women die” in prison facilities.
“It’s sad to see this is what our government has come to,” she added. “This is so heartbreaking.”
Among the 20 people who died behind bars was 60-year-old Leonard Carter, who passed away in April after contracting COVID-19 at Queensboro Correctional Facility in Long Island City.
Carter was granted parole in January, and was just weeks away from his release after 26 years in prison. He was the first person to die from the virus at the facility.
Cynthia Carter-Young, Leonard’s sister, said her brother also had emphysema. She called Queensboro Correctional Facility “a warehouse type of building” that had 120 bunks that were two feet apart.
“You had no type of privacy,” she said. “It was like a pressure cooker in there.”
Carter-Young noted that while he was in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, her brother had worked with the mental health unit and acquired several certificates. He had the proper training to seek a job in mental health, and had “glowing reviews” from the parole board.
“We thought we would see him by now, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” she said. “He didn’t come home.”
She said she wants Cuomo to remember her brother because the governor could have given him and other incarcerated people clemency, but chose not to do it.
“It’s a shame that my brother had to go through this,” Carter-Young said. “He never got to see or touch his grandchild.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through what my family has gone through,” she added. “But they will if nothing is done.”
Several Brooklyn lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, Assemblyman Walter Mosley and State Senator Zellnor Myrie joined the virtual rally. Myrie said the Department of Corrections has ignored lawmakers and given them “boilerplate responses.”
“I’ve reached a point where I think we need more radical action for more accountability,” he said.
Myrie said at the very least, the DOC commissioner should be called under subpoena to answer questions about what happened inside the prison system during COVID-19. He said he will urge state leadership to make that happen.
“We need to continue to use the bully pulpit we have,” Myrie said.