State lawmakers went behind bars to see first-hand the experience of people serving time in the state correctional system and to advocate for the passage of a package of criminal-justice reforms.
A virtual rally was held Thursday morning with about a dozen state senators, assembly members and groups that advocate for the incarcerated population.
Lawmakers toured facilities and pushed for passage of the Justice Roadmap agenda, a legislative package including decarceration, sentencing and parole reform, changes in the implementation of solitary confinement, police reforms, an end to the war on drugs and better living and labor conditions for people in state prisons, jails and detention centers.
The rally also focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the correctional facility population.
The state corrections system reported 32 COVID-related deaths and 5,686 positive virus cases since the beginning of the pandemic as of Tuesday, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
“There is a health crisis behind bars,” said Marvin Mayfield, statewide organizer for Center for Community Alternatives, which hosted the rally. “Nearly 16% of people incarcerated in New York state prisons have contracted COVID-19 and at least 32 people have died. Thirty-two people have died. But we know the jails and prisons and detention centers were deadly before this pandemic and they are even more so now.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, he said.
“Mass incarceration is a public health crisis,” Mayfield said.
DOCCS worked with the state Department of Health to put a vaccination plan in place for staff and incarcerated individuals, and corrections officers and those 65 years or older have begun receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the department.
“DOCCS began vaccinating staff and incarcerated individuals 65 years or older on Friday, Feb. 5,” spokeswoman Rachel Connors said Thursday. “To date, over 4,500 vaccinations have been administered. Vaccination efforts are continuing this week.”
Virus infections at most facilities have begun to decline and the department continues to manage cases in accordance with protocols from the Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to DOCCS.
Visitation remains suspended at all DOCCs facilities in an effort to stem community spread of the virus, according to DOCCS.
Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, D-72, said COVID, particularly among inmates in solitary confinement, poses a great danger.
“This is a ticking time bomb in people who are the most vulnerable in our state,” De La Rosa said.
Tim Reed, 57, an inmate at Franklin Correctional Facility in Malone, spoke during the virtual rally Wednesday of the risks the pandemic poses to older people who are incarcerated.
“Hundreds of people incarcerated at Franklin are over the age of 50 and have pre-existing medical conditions, putting us more at risk for COVID-19. Since the start of this pandemic, 31% of the people incarcerated at Franklin have already tested positive for COVID-19,” Reed said.
Social distancing is impossible, with inmates sleeping in close proximity to each other and limited supplies of face masks, Reed said.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-33, visited Otisville Correctional Facility in Orange County and said incarcerated individuals are treated unfairly because of an “us versus them” mentality and urged passage of the Justice Roadmap package of legislative reforms.
“We have to move to a system that is not merely punitive. If we believe in redemption, if we believe people can and do change and that people should not be defined by the worst thing they ever did, we need to put these into effect,” Rivera said.
“The system itself is so profoundly broken,” Kelles said.
Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, D-74, visited Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County where one-third of the inmates are over age 55. He saw plumbing leaks and heating problems, and only 30 inmates of the 1,600 are able to participate in a Bard College program aimed at training and rehabilitation, Epstein said.
“Dozens of inmates we talked to wanted to go to school, but there were no schools available,” he said. “There was a technical school, but the computers were older than some of my colleagues.”
Jerome Wright, from the -HALTsolitary Confinement Campaign, demanded the end of solitary confinement and for criminal-justice reform to be passed in New York state.
“The system is not flawed. The system is not broken,” Wright said. “The system is working the exact way it was set up to work and it is accomplishing the goal it set out to accomplish. It is like COVID-19. It is like a virus — it is set to replicate recidivism, misery and decimation to Black, brown and poor communities.”