Incarcerated people in the United States disproportionately suffer from comorbidities that render them especially vulnerable to poor outcomes from COVID-19, especially respiratory and cardiovascular issues. For example, the percentage of people held in state and federal prisons that suffer from heart-related problems is more than three times the national average. The percentage of people held in state and federal prisons that have ever tested positive for tuberculosis is 12 times higher than the national average. Incarcerated people are also likelier than average to suffer from asthma and high blood pressure.
Additionally, jails and prisons are natural breeding grounds for infectious disease. This not only stems from the large number of people living in such close proximity and the difficulty of physically separating sick individuals from healthy ones, but the notoriously unhygienic conditions and inadequate medical care that are commonplace in the carceral system. Bathrooms, showers and sinks are shared among dozens of people, soap is not routinely provided, and alcohol-based sanitizers are considered prohibited contraband.
Jails and prisons in New York state feature especially barbarous conditions. Nearly half of incarcerated survey respondents reported that their cells were not habitable in 2019, beset by issues including non-working toilets, vermin, and dilapidated infrastructure. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has said it has no plans to permit the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the only kind recommended as effective by the Centers for Disease Control. Indeed, Governor Andrew Cuomo bragged that the sanitizer being produced by prison labor at the Great Meadow Correctional facility is 75 percent alcohol, above the 60 percent minimum recommended by the CDC.
Unless quick and dramatic action is taken, New York’s carceral facilities risk being overrun by COVID-19 and a level of human suffering as cruel as it is avoidable. Other countries have already witnessed severe outbreaks in prisons. In China, more than 500 incarcerated people were reported infected, likely a substantial undercount. In Iran, prisons are so seriously affected that the government has temporarily released more than 50,000 people to contain its spread.
Lessons for New York
We’re calling upon Governor Cuomo and legislative leadership to immediately take the following actions:
Issue clemencies to vulnerable incarcerated populations, including people over the age of 50, pregnant women, people who are immunocompromised, and those suffering from chronic health conditions. When COVID-19 reaches our jails and prisons, it will be virtually impossible to halt its spread within the facilities. Continuing to incarcerate these populations poses an extraordinary danger to their health and their lives, as well as to corrections staff and their families.
Instruct judges to release anyone being held in pretrial detention or held solely for administrative reasons. The truth is that no one should be held in pre-trial detention, and our campaign is advocating vigorously for the elimination of cash bail and against the expansion of jail facilities. In the context of a pandemic, it is all the more urgent to move quickly to release people detained for crimes they haven’t been convicted of, or for technical parole violations or immigration detainers.
Cease issuing probation and parole warrants, reduce unnecessary probation and parole meetings, and discharge those no longer in need of supervision. Forcing thousands of New Yorkers to use public transit and go to and from state offices and interact with state employees directly undermines the social distancing mandate required to halt the pandemic’s spread. No one should be incarcerated for violations during this outbreak, and as many people as possible should be allowed to check in by phone. The state should also take this opportunity to end supervision altogether for those who don’t need it.
Issue citations instead of arrests for low-level offenses that don’t threaten public safety and end prosecution of broken windows and lifestyle offenses. We need to not only reduce the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons, but reduce the churn of defendants, lawyers, judges, officers, and state employees through courts, police precincts, parole offices, and other public spaces that could facilitate disease transmission. This is especially important in light of the suspension of new criminal trials in New York City, which will undermine defendants’ speedy trial rights.
End attempts to roll back bail reform. Fully eliminate cash bail. Governor Cuomo and Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins’ capitulation to right-wing fearmongering around last year’s successful bail reforms is a failure of leadership. These changes were not only morally sound, they substantially reduced New York’s jail population prior to the outbreak. Rolling back those changes would not only be morally wrong, it would raise the jail population in the midst of a pandemic, a wildly irresponsible outcome. We need to further reduce the jail population and pass S2101A to fully eliminate cash bail.
Provide adequate sanitation and personal hygiene products to everyone who remains incarcerated. People in New York jails and prisons are regularly denied access to soap and other cleaning products. The state must ensure that these facilities are supplied with enough soap and clean water for everyone housed in them, and provide daily access to showers and laundry. Alcohol-based sanitizers should also be permitted and distributed for the duration of the outbreak, along with cleaning supplies for living spaces.
End the exploitation of prison labor and enact a minimum wage for incarcerated workers. State law mandates that incarcerated New Yorkers “participate in programs as assigned,” such as “vocational programs, industrial programs, and maintenance work assignments in any combination.” Failure to comply can lead to placement in solitary confinement or deduction of good time credits, and workers may be paid as little as 16 cents/hour. The state must end its use of slave labor, repeal mandatory work requirements, and pass S3138/A1275 to establish a minimum wage of $3/hour for incarcerated workers.
Make all calls and emails to and from people incarcerated in state jails and prisons free. The state has announced that all in-person visits will be suspended at these facilities until at least April 11th, so incarcerated New Yorkers will not be able to see family and friends for an extended period. Cost should not be a barrier to contact with loved ones during these trying times.
The measures discussed in this memo are already long overdue, and all should continue even after the threat from the novel coronavirus has abated. This crisis is highlighting the extent to which our carceral system is predicated upon routine violations of human rights that will only intensify as circumstances become more serious. We must take steps toward harm reduction immediately, and then push to dismantle the structures that produced such grave threats to public safety and public health to begin with.