Since March, the coronavirus pandemic has shut the doors of most jails and prisons to visitors across the United States to slow the spread of the virus behind bars. But at the same time, family members and friends of inmates have been kept mainly in the dark, wondering for months what’s happening to their loved ones.
A new report from the Correctional Association of New York (CANY) says this has led to “high levels of distrust” between the family members of those who are incarcerated and the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS).
The report, based on a survey of family members and friends of inmates, charged that DOCCS’s “failures” —including a lack of transparency and inconsistent application of safety measures—had caused unnecessary hardship to those housed in the 27 correctional facilities across the state.
“People who were already being mistreated are suffering above and beyond on top of the COVID-19 issue and are more scared of further mistreatment,” according to one family member who responded to the CANY website survey.
“The infection is coming from the outside, but the population on the inside is being blamed, and the facilities are not equipped to accommodate them.”
The survey, conducted between April 12 and April 27, also indicated that many individuals behind bars have underlying medical conditions that are apparently not being attended to.
Many of the families called for their loved ones to be freed under state guidelines that allow for “compassionate release,” but a report released last week by the Prison Policy Initiative said obtaining such release was a “lengthy and cumbersome process” in most U.S. corrections facilities, and that as a result it helped only inmates in the most desperate conditions.
“Given that those who apply are almost always terminally ill or profoundly incapacitated, the arbitrary nature of this process means many die before their cases are resolved,” said the report, written by Emily Widra and Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative.
Bureaucratic hurdles and “frustratingly obscure” requirements mean that very few inmates who request compassionate release are allowed to leave.
In most states, a person must “be extremely close to death, or so incapacitated that they do not understand why they are being punished,” said the report.
Other hurdles include:
- Requiring medical professionals to attest that someone is within six months, or nine months, of death. Health professionals are reluctant to give such exact prognoses, the report noted, meaning that prison officials will default to saying “it’s safer just to not let this person go,” the report said.
- Allowing the ultimate decision-makers to overrule recommendations from medical professionals and prison staff (e.g. by refuting or ignoring a medical prognosis).
Inmates vulnerable to infection from COVID-19 are unlikely to find their way through the bureaucratic maze to get out of prison, leaving them dangerously at risk of infection or death, the CANY report suggested.
Data from DOCCS’s May 20th Progress Report suggests that within six New York prisons, the coronavirus infection rates were “more than two times higher than the COVID-19 infection rate in New York State.”
Moreover, “nearly half [43 percent] of respondents reported that corrections staff had taken no action to mitigate the spread of the virus,” the CANY report found, adding that “another 24 percent reported very limited or late implementation of the mitigation strategies which were sanctioned by DOCCS policy.”
Mitigating actions and strategies include masks for all inmates, social distancing rules, and access to hand sanitizer and other cleaning products. When asked by CANY about the availability of hand sanitizer, 85 percent of survey respondents said as far as they knew, hand sanitizer was not made available to their loved ones in prison.
Moreover, 65 percent of survey respondents reported that their incarcerated family member has an underlying medical condition which increases the risk of infection.
Among these were “cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and multiple mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety/depression,” according to the report.
An additional 75 percent of survey respondents expressed “grave concerns” — describing “fear, panic and deep distrust of state agencies” — when talking about their family member’s mental and physical health, the report continued.
Racial disparities in the impact of COVID are especially sharp inside correctional facilities, with some 49.2 percent of the New York prison population identified as African American. Emerging research has found that African Americans account for a disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. —many of whom already have medical conditions that increase their vulnerability.
One woman said her incarcerated husband was just 50, but was “prone” to respiratory illness. He entered prison with high blood pressure and asthma.
She called for him to be freed under the guidelines of Compassionate Release.
“He has outside clearance and work release, and should be released so his life isn’t at risk. He has a home to go to.”
In another comment in the survey, a parent complained that their son’s medical needs were being neglected, and he was unable to refill his prescriptions.
“I pray my son’s health won’t continue to deteriorate while being subjected to such poor, inhumane care and neglect by staff and medical personnel,” the parent wrote.
CANY has sent a document describing 32 recommendations to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and DOCCS urging “transparency, adherence to public health guidelines, adjustments to operational policy or practice, and broad-based clemency and early release.”
Some of these recommendations have already been addressed by the DOCCS, the report acknowledged.
For example, CANY urged the DOCCS to make all phone calls and messaging free for inmates during the pandemic, and DOCCS responded by negotiating with venders to provide free 30-minute calls every week.
Other, more general, recommendations outlined in the report include:
- More consistent implementation with policies, health and safety measures;
- Proper medical attention and oversight;
- Stronger quality assurance practices; and,
- Better communication between the DOCCS and family members.
“I feel all [incarcerated people] should have access to something to protect them,” one respondent implored at the end of their survey.
“Just give them their basic human rights please. It’s not like they can run and hide from this [pandemic].”
The full report can be accessed here.
TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano contributed to this summary.
Additional Reading: ‘This is Madness’: New Yorkers in Jail Despite COVID Pledges