Public health experts and prisoner advocacy organizations are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to take immediate action in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus within New York State’s prisons. At a press conference held at City Hall in Manhattan Wednesday, they demanded that Cuomo issue emergency clemencies to older people, sick people and others with compromised immune systems who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
They also urged the legislature to pass the Elder Parole (S.2144/A.9040) and the Fair and Timely Parole (S.497A/A.4346A) Acts, and for officials to ensure that phone calls and visits are possible for people in prison and their families as the virus continues to spread.
The call to address the spread of the virus in New York’s prisons comes on the heels of a news conference hosted by the governor on Monday at which Cuomo announced that New York is producing its own brand of hand sanitizer, NYS Clean, for notably cheaper prices than publicly-available sanitizers like Purell.
“It’s much cheaper for us to make it for ourselves,” Cuomo touted during the briefing.
The catch? The sanitizer is made by Corcraft, the brand name for the Division of Correctional Industries, a company operated by the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. NYS Clean is being manufactured by prisoners at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, who make an average of 65 cents an hour. The product will likely be banned within the prison, where hand sanitizer is considered contraband due to its alcohol content.
‘Jails and prisons are hotbeds for disease.’
Bianca Tylek, the Executive Director at Worth Rises, a group that opposes carceral exploitation, condemned Cuomo’s use of euphemistic speech.
“He had the nerve to sit there and say, ‘New York State is producing this.’ No! People produce things,” she said. “He’s gonna have folks inside mass producing products for us on the outside to stay safe, hand sanitizer that they cannot use on the inside.”
The threat of contracting a virus such as corona is particularly high in prison settings, as residents are in close contact on a daily basis and ventilation systems are shoddy at best.
“Jails and prisons are hotbeds for disease,” emphasized Mary Buser, who served as Assistant Chief of Mental Health at Rikers in 1991 when TB hit New York prisons.
Jose Saldana, Director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, highlighted the Department of Corrections’ unacceptable track record on inmate deaths and health concerns left unattended. He warned that those at high risk “will die in prison unless this governor takes action” and urged for the implementation of an emergency clemency program for “the elderly who have already languished in prison for three to four decades and who can safely be returned back to our home communities.”
Even in the most liberal states, cruel treatment and exploitation run rampant within prisons. California inmates, for instance, were paid a dollar an hour to battle wildfires on the frontlines.
Speaking with The Indypendent, RV Dougherty, an organizer with the No New Jails coalition, raised the question of whose lives matter. Coronavirus they said is “very clearly drawn along class and race boundaries — who gets to be protected and whose mobility and whose health we’re prioritizing — when we know that it’s folks who are incarcerated and low-wage workers who are gonna have to bear the brunt of this.”
Janos Marton, who is running for Manhattan District Attorney against longtime DA Cy Vance, used the press conference at City Hall to speak in favor of a bill last year that eliminated cash bail for nonviolent offenses. Vance and other DAs in the state want to roll back the reform. Thousands of people will not be at risk of exposure in New York’s jails thanks to the measure, Marton noted to The Indy.
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