New York prisoner advocates and legal experts put out an urgent call on Tuesday for more transparency in reporting on infections in the state that has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the nation.
Following the release of “incoherent” prison data, and in light of the low number of testing taking place in New York State’s jails and prisons, advocates are calling for more testing, better protection for detainees, and greater transparency in data relating to prisoner infections.
The letter sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo was signed by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, the Coalition for Public Safety, #cut50, FAMM, the Hispanic Federation, the Jewish Coalition for Criminal
“Gov. Cuomo has completely neglected to address the devastating toll COVID-19 is having on the state’s incarcerated population, despite having exhibited exemplary leadership during this global pandemic for the state’s general population,” said Khalil A. Cumberbatch, chief strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice (NYUJ).
“Based on the limited data available, the infection rate in New York’s prisons could be nearly six times the recommended maximum by the World Health Organization,” said Molly Gill, Vice President of Policy for FAMM.
“Not testing people in prison is asking to ignore this problem and hoping it goes away — and we all know that’s not going to solve this.”
More than 50,000 people are incarcerated in New York prisons. As of May 7, only 1.4 percent of the prison population had been tested for COVID-19.
The latest released figures–in New York State, 438 incarcerated people have tested positive for the virus and 1,185 staff members, according to Department of Corrections and Community Supervision–do not make sense, said Cumberbatch.
The ratio is usually flipped, with the incarcerated totals outnumbering the staff, as in the state of Arkansas, which has a far smaller population than New York but reports 868 incarcerated testing positive and 66 staff.
With jails showing a high rate of transitions in and out, a jail outbreak could swiftly impact the larger community.
“Thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives are in grave danger,” said Cumberbatch.
“We’ve been demanding a plan since early March,” he said. According to the advocates, New York State has yet to develop or reveal any comprehensive plan on how it plans to address COVID-19 in its jails and prisons.
Jennifer Scaife, Executive Director at The Correctional Association of New York, said that they are receiving reports of inconsistent use of masks in prisons, lack of uniformity of screening, social distancing not being observed, and phones and other heavily used equipment not being disinfected.
While Gov. Cuomo has agreed to some measures to reduce the population, the state needs to go much further in granting more clemency appeals and expediting the release of the frail and elderly as well as those who pose no threat to public safety.
The latest figures currently show a 2 percent rate of infection for all New York City residents and a 1.6 percent rate in New York State. Among the prisons and jails that are releasing data, Rikers Island is stating a 9.6 percent “positive” rate and Otisville Prison an 8 percent rate.
When prisons in other states do perform more comprehensive testing, infection rates are showing an average of 70 percent, said Molly Gill.
This makes New York State’s released data on infections even more implausible, the advocates said.
“We ask that DOCCS have priority access to obtain tests, test as many incarcerated people and staff as it can and be transparent with that data,” concluded the advocates’ letter.
“The state simply cannot respond effectively to this pandemic without knowing who has been infected inside its prisons.”
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report