Amid crisis, state rethinks incarceration

File photo Coxsackie Correctional Facility, a state maximum-security prison, on Route 9W in Coxsackie.

Officials are identifying inmates at correctional facilities statewide who could be eligible for early release due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has begun reviewing cases of incarcerated individuals who meet certain broadened criteria established by the governor’s office.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March authorized the release of 791 inmates being held on technical parole violations in local and county jails, and in April the state began releasing prisoners aged 55 and over who were convicted of non-violent crimes and were within 90 days of their release date.

Under the initiative, 167 older inmates were released.

The state has also released eight pregnant or postpartum women as of May 13. All were within six months of completing their sentences and were not convicted of violent or sex offenses, according to DOCCS.

Last week, DOCCS began identifying individuals who meet a broader set of criteria — those of any age who are within 90 days of release and are not serving sentences for A-1 or A-2 non-drug offenses, class B through E violent felony offenses, or a sex offense, and who do not pose an undue risk to public safety, according to the department.

Inmates continue to come up for review as they meet the criteria.

Inmates released due to the COVID-19 outbreak will remain under community supervision for the remainder of their sentence after the outbreak ends, as long as no new criminal charges are filed, according to DOCCS.

Prison reform advocates, however, are urging the state to release more inmates. Less than half of 1% of incarcerated people in New York state have been released, Jose Saldana, director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said.

“The governor is making a decision based on politics instead of health and humanity for people who are incarcerated,” said Saldana, who served a 38-year sentence and was released two years ago. “I was released from prison in 2018 after 38 years of incarceration, and I am speaking for the men that I left behind. The governor is not recognizing the humanity of the men and women in his prisons.”

Saldana, who said he recently recovered from COVID-19 after being treated in a New York City hospital, said he has friends who died in prison from the virus.

As of May 18, there were 465 positive COVID-19 cases in state prisons, with 371 individuals who have recovered and out of isolation units; 1,206 staff members have tested positive for the virus, according to DOCCS.

Four staff members and 16 inmates have died from the virus statewide.

At Coxsackie Correctional Facility, two inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and both have recovered, as of May 17, according to DOCCS. Greene Correctional Facility has had one inmate test positive and is recovered. No deaths have been reported in either facility.

No positive cases have been reported at Hudson Correctional Facility as of May 17, according to DOCCS.

Statewide, correctional facilities with the highest number of positive cases have been Fishkill, with 85; Sing Sing, with 51; Otisville, at 45; and Green Haven, with 49. Fishkill has seen the highest number of COVID-19 deaths with five, according to DOCCS.

Saldana is concerned those numbers will rise.

“I am sure many more will succumb to this virus,” he said.

At his daily press briefing May 15, Cuomo warned about potential virus spread at congregate living facilities such as prisons, nursing homes and group homes for the disabled.

“There is no doubt that when you have a congregate of people, that is a place where the virus can spread,” Cuomo said. “Wherever you have density of people, that is a problem area.”

Saldana wants to see more older inmates — in their 50s and up — who have served decades of their sentence released, regardless of the crime that led to their incarceration. Many inmates — including those convicted of violent felonies — who have spent many years in prison have turned their lives around and come to the aid of fellow inmates, Saldana said.

“To use violent conviction as a criteria for men who have languished in prison for decades and helped others transform their lives — to base it on a conviction that is 40 years old is a terrible injustice, not only to the men and women in prison, but to the families and the communities they would help revitalize.”

Several prison reform advocacy groups — including the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, Parole Preparation Project, -HALTsolitary Campaign, VOCAL-NY, Worth Rises and Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club — released a statement calling for the governor to release more inmates in light of the virus outbreak.

“The governor must exercise national leadership by granting broad clemencies to New Yorkers incarcerated in his prisons, especially the thousands of older and medically vulnerable people who have unnecessarily languished behind bars for decades,” according to the statement.

About 40,500 men and women are incarcerated in New York state, according to DOCCS.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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