New York has become the epicenter of the American coronavirus outbreak, with over 180,000 total cases and more than 9,000 deaths as of Monday. But although the pandemic has wreaked havoc in the state, particularly in Queens’ low-income communities of color, experts predict that it will be even more disastrous in the state’s prison system, where, thanks to close quarters and unsanitary conditions, at least 131 incarcerated individuals have tested positive for coronavirus and three others have died, a startling increase from numbers released last week.
While the close quarters and regular influx of outsiders in prisons make them particularly vulnerable, the situation is of particular concern for older individuals. Elderly people are at the greatest risk for death from COVID-19, especially those who are immunocompromised or have some sort of chronic health condition. With an incredibly low recidivism rate of 3 percent, older incarcerated individuals pose an extremely low threat to their communities outside of prison, and they now face a disproportionately high risk of death within the system as coronavirus continues to infect the prison population.
Release Aging People in Prison, Parole Preparation Project, VOCAL-NY, and other advocacy groups are now calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant clemency to that vulnerable population before the outbreak gets any worse, similar to how Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear commuted more than 900 individuals’ sentences early in April and California Gov. Gavin Newsom granted early release to 3,500 people in his state’s prison system.
“New York’s constitution allows the governor to grant clemency to any person who is impacted by the state prison system,” explained David George, RAPP’s Associate Director. “At any point, Cuomo can grant release or a sentence reduction to any one of the tens of thousands of New Yorkers in his prison system. He has total control. He doesn’t have to go through a state agency or anything bureaucratic. It’s totally up to him.”
Despite this pressure, Cuomo, whom many have praised for his leadership in recent weeks, has continually dodged the issue, telling reporters he has “nothing new” to say on the matter or otherwise declining to comment. It’s a shame, said Jose Saldana, RAPP’s Director; Cuomo not only has the power to grant clemency to these at-risk individuals, he has a moral obligation to do so, considering how many thousands of lives are at stake.
“Gov. Cuomo has the power to do anything he wants to,” said Saldana. “This disease is devastating. It will create havoc and transform New York state prisons into death camps, and it will be on his watch.”
VICE had the opportunity to speak with Saldana about how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted New York state’s prison system thus far, how incarcerated people will fare as the outbreak wears on, why clemency could save thousands of lives, and how further inaction from Gov. Cuomo could spell death for just as many. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: You said that Gov. Cuomo has the power to do something about the coronavirus outbreak in New York state prisons. What can he do?
SALDANA: He has the power to release them. This is a humanitarian crisis, and it needs a humanitarian solution. The only solution is to decarcerate the prison system to minimize the spread of COVID-19. If he looks at it from a humanitarian perspective, he can do this. He can call for the release of thousands of elderly prisoners. He could make that decision.
Why do you think he hasn’t done anything about it yet?
We’re talking about a category of people that have the lowest risk of recidivism, that is, of ever going back to crime. They’ve proven themselves over decades being teachers, educators, mentors, pioneers. They deserve this. They were not sentenced to die, which is what will happen: death by incarceration. People transform their lives in prison. I know firsthand. I was released from prison two years ago after 38 years in prison. I am what I am talking about.
I don’t think Cuomo is really too concerned about people of color and poor people. I don’t just mean those who are incarcerated, but the tens of thousands of Black and brown families that will be impacted. I don’t think he’s concerned about them. He’s concerned with looking presidential, serving the interests of those he considers his constituents. He doesn’t consider us his constituents. He doesn’t think of us as equal citizens of New York. He has demonstrated that repeatedly.
He’s had opportunities to grant clemency to people beyond worthy and done nothing. He allowed a 61-year-old woman to die last year in New York state prison, a woman by the name of Valerie Gaiter. She was an icon in the prison system, instrumental in transforming an entire generation of younger women during her four decades of incarceration. She applied for clemency, and the governor rejected it. Cuomo let her die.
We’ve known that the coronavirus pandemic had spread to the New York state prison system by the end of March . What kind of impact has it had on people in that system?
It has created an atmosphere of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and despair. People really don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Everybody’s just waiting for a storm to come, knowing that this storm is going to be devastating, and feeling helpless to do anything about it. For someone who’s languishing in a prison cell, especially someone who’s been there for three or four decades, who’s survived the HIV crisis, what we thought was the worst health crisis imaginable… They’re much older now. Many of them have health conditions. They’re just waiting for COVID-19 to hit them, knowing that if they get infected that it will probably kill them.
Men—full, grown men—are emailing me, saying, ‘Please call my mother, and tell her I love her.’ This is the despair I was talking about. They’re trying to make amends and say their last goodbyes because they saw what happened in China and they’re seeing what’s happening all over the country, everything this virus has ruined. They have no protections. They can’t practice social distancing. They don’t have masks. They can’t wash their hands 30 times a day. They can’t stop breathing in the air with sick people all around them told to stay still in their cell. They realize that it’s only a matter of time before they get sick, too. There’s so much urgency right now. We hope Gov. Cuomo will have some compassion for these men and women.
You mentioned the HIV crisis. How did HIV impact New York state prisons?
The HIV crisis hit the New York prison system with catastrophic consequences. I was in prison at the time, and I saw what it did. I saw what it created, the stigma associated with it. Anyone suspected of having the disease was isolated by the Department of Corrections [DOC] and stigmatized in so many ways. They were punished, not only for having the disease but for being suspected of having it. The DOC was not prepared to deal with that health crisis, and those who lived through it remember. Now, they see, clear as daylight, that the DOC is perhaps worse prepared now to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic.
Why are elderly people in the system especially at risk for COVID?
Elderly people were already facing a serious health crisis within the prison system, long before COVID. Every four days, an elderly person in New York state prison dies. Six-hundred and seventy-five elder persons have died since Cuomo took office. The average age of death is 58 years old. That’s an alarmingly young age in this day and time.
Now, they face an even deadlier health crisis. So, we advocate first and foremost for their release, especially those languishing in prison for decades. They were not given death sentences. They were not sentenced to die in prison. Some have been denied parole repeatedly for years. We’re calling on Gov. Cuomo to issue mass clemency to all elderly people, especially those with underlying health problems. There are mentors of mine still in prison who have survived. They’re still in prison. They should’ve been walking out with me. Instead, they’ll probably all die. I have visions of the faces of the men and women that we’re talking about, all equally deserving to be released right now.
What about people reading this who aren’t Gov. Cuomo? What can they do?
They should understand that this is a humanitarian crisis waiting to happen. These people could be your grandfathers and grandmothers in there. You should call on Gov. Cuomo to extend compassion to these people.
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