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New report on prison deaths comes as New York lawmakers push for reforms

Prison Bars
Gemma Longman Flickr

A new report from Columbia University has gained the attention of New York state lawmakers looking to push for major prison reforms next year.

The report, “New York’s New Death Penalty,” found more New Yorkers died in state prison in the last decade - 1,278 people - than the total number who died by execution during the more than 350 years in which capital punishment was permitted in the state - 1,130 people.

It comes at a time of renewed scrutiny on incarceration, including a number of deaths at the troubled Rikers Island jail in New York City.

The state officially abolished the death penalty in 2007.

A growing number of Democratic lawmakers are calling for major criminal justice reforms to be passed during the 2022 legislative session, including measures to give incarcerated people over age 55 who have also already served 15 years in prison a chance to go before a parole board. Another would change the standards of parole, centering release on a person’s rehabilitation while incarcerated, not on the original crime.

State Assemblyman Kenny Burgos, a Democrat whose district includes Rikers Island, took part in a virtual meeting to discuss the report Tuesday.

“We know good and well that we need to come into this session and this has be the No. 1 priority. If we're going to truly transform the criminal justice space, if we're going to really talk about decarceration, about lowering this population about really creating a system of rehabilitation, of compassion, of not judging people on the worst of their actions for a moment in their life, then we need to pass Fair and Timely Parole, Elder Parole and as my colleague, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas has said, The Clean Slate bill, as well," he said.

Top New York Democrats, including Governor Kathy Hochul, have made a point to tour Rikers after the 12th inmate this year and amid reports of chaos while hundreds of guards refuse to report to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hochul also released 200 inmates in September under the state’s new parole reform law, which prevents parolees from being sent back to prison for technical violations:

“We have worked very hard in the state of New York to close prisons to have more de-incarceration and to find people opportunities for reentry," she said in New York City. "I've worked very hard on this joining many, many organizations that and I've seen personally people who were incarcerated, getting training for medical, coding, for welding, all kinds of training and how to be a good parent. I have walked these halls and sat with these people for years. So, I'm very passionate about this.”

The move was harshly criticized by Republicans, including the leading GOP gubernatorial candidate, Congressman Lee Zeldin.

Speaking on WAMC’s Capitol Connection, New York State Republican Committee Chair Nick Langworthy said criminal justice reform is likely to be a major campaign issue next year:

“Instead of just a social experiment like the people in Albany decided to do through budget bills, they should have brought in the people that actually are charged with keeping our streets safe," Langworthy said. "And what are you have now, everybody gets out. There's no common denominator of having to fear spending the night in a cell, because it's not worth the prosecution and the paperwork. So, everybody runs amok, and that's why we have a rise in violence. That's why we have a rise in petty crime.”

The report also found roughly one-in-three people who died in prison had already served at least 15 years. Columbia University’s Greer Ellis of the Center for Justice says lack of access to quality health care is one factor among many:

“We know anecdotally and from other reports that we have seen that we know that the healthcare is inadequate, and that people who are older are dying of age-related illnesses in that prison is aging people faster than if they were on the outside," she said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Greer Ellis as saying “AIDS-related” instead of “age-related."