Concern grows for inmates in state prison system
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault, has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to a story first published in the Niagara Gazette. Weinstein is in the Wende Correctional Facility in western New York. The news comes as advocates for prisoner rights are asking the state for a plan to protect inmates from getting the virus.
Khalil Cumberbatch is a prisoners’ rights advocate with New Yorkers United for Justice and a former inmate of New York state prisons, where he served 6 ½ years. He said prisons are not set up for social distancing.
“Unlike society, people cannot social distance,” said Cumberbatch, who added the prisons are “jam-packed.”
“People are literally on top of each other,” he said.
Some inmates are housed in bunk beds in dormitory-style spaces and share a bathroom.
And Cumberbatch said health care is “nonexistent.”
Cumberbatch and other advocates are urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to come up with a comprehensive plan now to contain the virus within the prisons. They say otherwise, the disease could spread like “wildfire” and also endanger guards and other staff.
Over three dozen inmates at Rikers Island have tested positive for the virus. A staff member at Sing Sing prison is also sick, along with one person at the Nassau County Jail. A correctional officer has already died of the disease.
The groups would also like to see a temporary moratorium on jailing people for minor parole violations, move nonviolent offenders to other sites to reduce the density in the prisons, and move elderly or immune-compromised inmates to home confinement instead.
They also want prisoners now employed making hand sanitizers and other health supplies to be paid overtime wages.
“It’s a civil rights issue, a human rights issue and humanitarian issue,” said Mark Morial, president of the National Urban League.
Cuomo was asked over the weekend about making plans for protecting prisoners from the virus, said he’s watching the situation “very closely.”
“We don’t have a significant issue yet of spread in the prison system,” Cuomo said. “If we have a problem, we’ll address it. But we don’t have that problem yet.”
Visitors are barred from the state’s prisons until at least April 11 under rules adopted by the state Department of Corrections on March 14. There’s a temporary halt to taking in prisoners from county jails, and all internal transfers of inmates have been halted, expect for medical or disciplinary reasons. And a ban on the use of hand sanitizers by inmates has been lifted.
An official at the department of corrections said the department is preparing by reviewing protocol and checking emergency supplies, and they have medical staff that is trained in infection control.
On Monday, Cuomo said his administration is looking at whether to release elderly and sick prisoners.
“It’s something we’re looking at, yes,” Cuomo said.
Advocates said the state needs to act quickly; they say, “literally, lives are at stake.”
The states of California, Ohio and Texas are already releasing some prisoners to prevent a major outbreak in their prisons. And there’s pressure on New York City to release prisoners as well.