[Pnews] It’s Time for NYS to Act on Decarceration in Prisons to Curb COVID-19

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 5 15:07:12 EST 2021


https://citylimits.org/2021/01/04/opinion-its-time-for-new-york-state-to-act-on-decarceration-in-prisons-to-curb-covid-19/
Opinion:
It’s Time for NYS to Act on Decarceration in Prisons to Curb COVID-19
Author By David Hoos, Susan M. Reverby, Barbara Zeller and Robert Fullilove
- January 4, 2021
------------------------------

*Cuomo has failed to implement widely accepted sound public health
practices by refusing to release any meaningful number of the state’s
COVID-vulnerable imprisoned human beings, and now by failing to put them in
the first categories for access to the new vaccines.*

Adi Talwar
Queensboro Correctional Facility.

New York State and the country were transfixed last spring by Governor
Andrew Cuomo’s forceful, straightforward commentaries and policies toward
combating the COVID-19 pandemic. In November, the New York Academy of
Medicine, in recognition, gave Cuomo their prestigious Stephen Smith Medal
for Distinguished Contributions to Public Health. Yet in reality, Cuomo has
failed to implement widely accepted sound public health practices by
refusing to release any meaningful number of the state’s COVID-vulnerable
imprisoned human beings, and now by failing to put them in the first
categories for access to the new vaccines. Containment of this pandemic
depends on what happens to the most vulnerable; pandemics reveal whether we
really care about all human beings.

The idea of acting now to increase release mechanisms such as parole and
clemency, especially for aging prisoners, is far from radical. Cuomo’s
failure to bring best public health practices to the state’s prisons
contradicts the advice from the American Public Health Association, the
American Medical Association, and other public health and medical
organizations. A study published in July in the Journal of the American
Medical Association, before the current surge, found that the COVID-19 case
rate for prisoners in federal and state institutions was 5.5. times higher
than the U.S. population case rate.
<https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2768249> And as the *New
York Times *reported on Dec. 20
<https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/18/opinion/jails-covid.html?searchResultPosition=1>,
according to Dr. Emily Wang, the director of the Yale School of Medicine’s
Health Justice Lab, “If we don’t have larger-scale decarceration efforts,
we won’t control COVID.”

Corrections officers in those institutions risk onward local community
transmission, often in rural areas with fewer hospitals. Overcrowding, the
lack of separate toilets and sinks, absence of effective PPE, the inability
to practice social distancing, and populations with higher numbers of
underlying conditions make prisons the perfect hothouses for explosive
COVID transmission.  Indeed, the latest news documents that one in five
prisoners in the United States had COVID
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/12/18/1-in-5-prisoners-in-the-u-s-has-had-covid-19>.
The numbers will only get worse.

The people Cuomo’s policies are harming are overwhelmingly African American
and Latinx, who suffer at higher rates of underlying conditions than their
peers outside the walls, and include more than 8,000 older incarcerated
women and men serving long sentences. Years of evidence show that thousands
of those people have transformed their lives, taken deep responsibility for
the damage they caused, and pose little or no risk of committing a new
crime if released.

If the wisdom of public health experts and criminal justice experts was
recognized, New York State would long since have released thousands of
deserving New Yorkers and placed incarcerated people among the first phase
recipients of the vaccine. Instead, the past 16 days alone have seen six
more COVID deaths in New York prisons.

Six states have already put incarcerated people into their phase one for
vaccines. New York has not
<https://citylimits.org/2020/12/22/when-will-new-york-vaccinate-people-in-prisons-and-jails/>.
Such an action would at least act as “harm reduction” in public health
parlance. However, given the documented low public safety risk posed by
many categories of prisoners, in particular older persons serving long
sentences, decarceration of a substantial number of incarcerated New
Yorkers is the truly appropriate public health intervention.

Two bills before the state legislature would accomplish, in part,
meaningful decarceration as a public health intervention. Elder Parole
<https://citylimits.org/2019/08/20/advocates-for-aging-prisoners-look-to-force-a-debate-on-parole/>,
sponsored by Assembly Member Carmen De La Rosa and Senator Brad Hoylman,
would allow people aged 55 and older who have served at least 15 years to
appear before the parole board for consideration of release, no matter the
original sentence or crime. Fair and Timely Parole, sponsored by Senator
Gustavo Rivera and Assembly Member David Weprin, would instruct the Board
of Parole to base release decisions on an applicant’s current character,
behavior, and public safety risk level, rather than on the original offense
committed many decades ago.

In combination, these bills would mitigate enormously the damage that the
current COVID pandemic, as well as any future pandemic, could wreak on New
York State prisons and communities—as well as significantly reducing the
massive damage to public health caused by our society’s imposition of
excessive and inhumane punishment. Governor Cuomo’s refusal to grant a
meaningful number of clemencies belies his being honored as a public health
champion.  We already know that Governor Cuomo does not follow all the
public health wisdom and practice. We hope the New York State legislature
will.

*David Hoos, M.D., MPH, works for Columbia University’s Mailman School of
Public Health. Susan M. Reverby, Ph.D, is a Wellesley College Professor
Emerita and the author of Examining Tuskegee. Barbara Zeller, M.D., is a
prisoner medical advisor.  Dr. Robert Fullilove is a professor and
associate dean at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.*
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