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New Yorkers in 4 cities protest, as Elmira prison hits 565 COVID-19 cases

Jillian Forsadt
Advocates across four cities call for clemencies at New York prisons experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Protests were held Tuesday in four locations across New York over the growing number of state prison inmates infected with the coronavirus. There have been outbreaks in at least four prisons: the Greene, Clinton and Cayuga correctional facilities and in Elmira, where 565 inmates have now tested positive for the virus -- the largest outbreak in a New York prison since the start of the pandemic.

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesperson Thomas Mailey said in a statement that there are no longer any tests pending at the Elmira facility, none of the individuals who tested positive required a transfer to an outside hospital and the majority of people are asymptomatic. The 565 cases is a little more than 37%, of the 1,518 individuals currently assigned to the prison, but 24 inmates had recovered as of Tuesday.

In response to the spike in cases, DOCCS suspended visitation and transfers in and out of Elmira last week. It made the same suspension at Greene Correctional Facility in the Hudson Valley. The state also deployed rapid testing resources to Elmira on Oct. 21.

But advocates across New York said Tuesday that curbing the spread of COVID-19 in prisons requires more than new safety protocols; it requires granting more clemencies.

Close to 50 people gathered outside the Elmira Correctional Facility. For months, advocates have called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release people in the prison system who are at higher risk for serious illness from the virus. With the surge in cases at Elmira and other facilities, they are now calling those clemencies “overdue.”

In conjunction with the Elmira protests, advocates with the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, the #HALTsolitary Campaign and the Center for Community Alternatives held protests online and in Albany, New York City and Rockville Centre, chanting "free them all."

Credit Karen DeWitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent
Former inmate Thomas Kearney is among protesters asking for early release of some prisoners in state facilities in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases.

Thomas Kearney, a RAPP regional organizer and a former inmate, said he remembers what the judge told him the day he was sentenced to prison for a crime that resulted in harm to another person and “displayed a depraved indifference to human life through risk of death.”

Kearney said the judge told him the time served might help him reflect on what he had done.

“So that I would be able to learn some sense of empathy and compassion for my fellow citizens,” said Kearney.

He said New York’s political leaders, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and members of the State Legislature, are not showing any of that compassion to inmates. Kearney said they could release some of the state’s prisoners if they had the political will to do so. Kearney said Cuomo has the power to grant clemency to 50% of all prisoners to clear up space in the facilities for social distancing.

He said it’s unconscionable to allow the 39,000 inmates to face potential death from the virus simply because they are housed in crowded conditions.

“They are all exhibiting depraved indifference to human life through risk of death,” Kearney said of state leaders. “They are guilty 39,000 times over of what I was found guilty of. Where is the justice?”

Kearney added that 18 prisoners have already died of COVID-19.

Syracuse resident Emily NaPier Singletary attended the protest outside of the Elmira Correctional Facility, where her husband, Derek Singletary, is incarcerated.

She said people in the prison are now in their cells essentially 24/7 with limited phone access.

“People cannot lose touch with the outside world. They need to talk to their loved ones,” NaPier Singletary said. “This is a public health crisis and you have cut them off from the outside world.”

NaPier Singletary said she visited her husband at the prison twice a week before visits were suspended. While there, she said she saw many Elmira correctional officers without masks or wearing them improperly during her visits to the prison.

“I can tell you exactly how COVID got in there, because none of these officers have been wearing masks this whole time,” NaPier Singletary said. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes as I’ve gone in there, and Derek has seen it with his own eyes since the pandemic began.”

Mailey did not immediately respond to public radio’s questions about the allegations. DOCCS officials said the agency does not disclose the number of cases among staff by prison for safety and security reasons.

According to the statement, staff are screened daily for temperature, symptoms, exposure to a known COVID-19 case, recent positive tests and travel to a state with significant community spread that requires a two-week quarantine. Mailey said staff are also provided with sufficient PPE. Every individual incarcerated in the 52 state prisons will have been tested for COVID-19 by the end of November, Mailey said.

Several state politicians joined the protests, in-person and online. State Sen. Luis Sepulveda, who co-chaired a hearing on COVID-19 in prisons last month, led protesters in a moment of silence for incarcerated people who have died from the virus.

The New York State Department of Corrections has reported 18 COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. Sepulveda said that further measures must be taken to prevent more deaths from occurring.

“We don’t have the death penalty in New York anymore,” Sepulveda said. “COVID-19 should not replace the death penalty in our society.”

Sepulveda said he is committed to decreasing the prison population in order to curb the spread of the virus.

Mailey said that DOCCS has implemented early release opportunities for individuals based on thorough individualized reviews since the start of the pandemic, resulting in the early release of 3,057 individuals.

The count includes women who were pregnant and within 180 days of their approved release date; individuals who committed on non-violent, non-sex offenses and within 90 days of their approved release date; and individuals who had their low-level parole violations canceled.

Antonio Dayter was recently released from the Greene County Correctional Facility, which has the second-largest outbreak in the state. He said prison officials are not following safety rules.

“These inmates are being denied treatment, they are being denied access to their families,” Dayter said.

The union representing correctional officers is also concerned. The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association issued a statement asking the state to ban visitors to the prisons to help prevent the spread of the disease.

Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser, also noted the number of inmates released early. He said once the outbreaks became known, the state deployed rapid testing for inmates and staff at the affected prisons and banned visitors from Elmira, Greene and Southport in the Southern Tier, a region affected by community spread of the virus. When visitation resumes, all visitors will need to have proof that they tested negative for the virus within the past seven days.  

Cuomo, speaking Monday, said he believes the Department of Corrections has behaved properly.

“Overall, DOCs has done a fantastic job with COVID,” said Cuomo. “We had a lower transmission rate in the state prisons than in the general population, believe it or not.”

During the outbreak last spring, the state’s prisons avoided any major outbreaks. Azzopardi and Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, said they are taking the situation seriously and are being guided by scientific data.

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