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Protesters Ask Cuomo To Release Sick Prisoners To Quell Rising COVID Spread

Former inmate Thomas Kearney is among protesters asking for early release of some prisoners in state facilities, in the wake of rising cases of COVID-19.
Karen DeWitt
Former inmate Thomas Kearney is among protesters asking for early release of some prisoners in state facilities, in the wake of rising cases of COVID-19.

Protests were held in four locations in New York Tuesday over the growing number of state prison inmates infected with COVID-19. There have been outbreaks in at least four prisons in the Greene, Clinton and Cayuga Correctional Facilities, as well as in Elmira, where over 450 inmates have now tested positive for the virus.

The demonstrators, chanting “free them all,” are part of long standing prisoners’ rights groups, including Release Aging People from Prison, or RAPP, and the HALT Solitary (confinement) campaign. They held protests simultaneously at the Elmira prison and in New York City, on Long Island, and outside the State Capitol in Albany, to ask that sick and elderly prisoners be released early. 

Thomas Kearney, a RAPP regional organizer and a former inmate, says he remembers what the judge told him the day he was sentenced to prison for a crime that resulted in harm to another person and “displayed a depraved indifference to human life through risk of death.” Kearney says the judge told him the time served might help him reflect on what he had done.

“So that I would be able to learn some sense of empathy and compassion for my fellow citizens,” said Kearney.

He says New York’s political leaders, including Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the state legislature, are not showing any of that compassion to inmates. Kearney says they could release some of the state’s inmates if they had the political will to do so. Kearney says Cuomo has the power to grant clemency to 50% of all prisoners to clear up space in the facilities for social distancing. He says it’s unconscionable to allow the 39,000 inmates to face potential death from the virus simply because they are housed in crowded conditions.

“They are all exhibiting depraved indifference to human life through risk of death,” said Kearney who said 18 prisoners have already died of coronavirus.

“They are guilty 39,000 times over of what I was found guilty of,” Kearney said. “Where is the justice?”

Antonio Dayter was recently released from the Greene County Correctional Facility, which has the second largest outbreak in the state. He says prison officials are not following safety rules.

“These inmates are being denied treatment, they are being denied access to their families,” Dayter said.

The union representing correctional officers, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, is also concerned. They issued a statement asking the state to ban visitors to the prisons to help prevent the spread of the disease.

A spokesman for Cuomo, senior advisor Rich Azzopardi, says the governor has already directed the state Department of Corrections to grant early release to over 3,052 inmates, including those with low level parole violations, others who committed non-violent non- sexual offenses and were within 90 days of their release date, and 12 pregnant female inmates.

Azzopardi says once the outbreaks became known, the state deployed rapid testing for inmates and staff at the affected prisons, and banned visitors from three prisons- Elmira, Greene and Southport in the Southern Tier, which is in a region impacted by community spread of the virus.  He says most of the cases are asymptomatic, but the inmates who are sick are being monitored by health officials at the prisons. When visitation resumes, all visitors will need to have proof that they tested negative for COVID-19 within the past seven days.

Cuomo, speaking October 26, says he believes the Department of Corrections has behaved properly.

“Overall, DOCCS has done a fantastic job with COVID,” said Cuomo. “We had a lower transmission rate in the state prisons than in the general population, believe it or not.”   

During the outbreak last spring, the state’s prisons avoided any major outbreaks. Azzopardi and Cuomo’s Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa says they are taking the situation seriously, and are being guided by scientific data.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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