Call for Cuomo to free ailing prisoners as virus spreads

Advocates want Gov. Andrew Cuomo to do whatever he can to let more people out of prison during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Danny Laplaza/THE CITY)

By Reuven Blau and Rosa Goldensohn

This story was originally published on April 1, 2020 by THE CITY.

One state prisoner, suffering from inflamed lungs, struggles to breathe. Another, with skin cancer growths all over his body, is so weak he can’t lift items from the commissary. A third, battling diabetes, recently underwent triple-bypass heart surgery.

They’re among the first group of four people behind bars public defenders are urging state prison officials to release early as COVID-19 cases spread through some of the state’s 52 lockups. Most of the prisoners are already set to be freed within the next year.

“We think their stories encapsulate just how serious this problem is,” said Stefen Short, a Legal Aid Society attorney.

In a letter to the prison system’s top lawyer, the public defense organization pointed out that the Cuomo administration has the power to grant medical parole or temporary release, as well as commutations and clemencies.

Last Friday, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) began to release low-level technical parole violators from local jails, including some people locked up on Rikers Island. Prison officials believe the effort could spring 1,100 people, including 400 in New York City.

But advocates and medical experts want Gov. Andrew Cuomo to free more people.

Some 147 prison staffers and 20 prisoners had confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to DOCCS. In addition, 20 prisoners were awaiting test results, while 34 have tested negative, according to DOCCS.

Prison officials say the positive coronavirus tests represent a small percentage of the 29,000 employees and approximately 43,000 prisoners in state facilities.

‘Only Cuomo Can Protect’

But some medical experts fear the number of prisoners with COVID-19 is actually higher, noting that just 74 prisoners have been tested so far.

“Incarcerated people cannot protect themselves right now. Only Governor Cuomo can protect them,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, a city Board of Correction commissioner.

The Legal Aid Society shared a redacted version — without names, due to medical privacy concerns — of its six-page letter to Adam Silverman, the prison system’s top lawyer, and Cal Whiting, Cuomo’s assistant secretary for public safety.

The first case highlighted is a 55-year-old man serving time at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, N.Y., for a burglary and grand larceny conviction

Tha man is a “lifelong asthma patient” who is on several medications and uses a nebulizer. He’s been “inexplicably confined” to a double cell, which makes it impossible for him to keep six feet away from other people, the letter says.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives a coronavirus update at the Javits Center, March 30, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

He’s scheduled for release on Oct. 25.

The letter also makes the case for the early release of an 83-year-old man locked up on “scheme to defraud” and grand larceny charges being held in Watertown Correctional Facility near the Canadian border. He has had bladder cancer twice, according to the letter.

“His cancer has caused further health complications, including his development of basal cell carcinomas, melanomas, and squamous cell carcinomas on his face, arms, and legs, and the removal of one of his kidneys,” the missive says.

He’s so weak he can’t carry commissary items or packages sent to him by his family, the letter says. He’s scheduled for a parole hearing in September.

A ‘Great Risk’

The Legal Aid Society is also pressing for the release of a 40-year-old man being held on an attempted robbery conviction at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County.

In February, the man underwent triple bypass surgery and has missed multiple follow-up appointments with his cardiologist, according to the letter. He’s scheduled for conditional release on June 27.

“As with our other clients, an additional three months in prison exposes (him) to great risk of COVID-19 transmission and serious complications from the virus,” the letter says.

Defense lawyers also want the state to release a 60-year-old woman serving a two-year sentence at Taconic Correctional in Bedford Hills.

The woman — convicted of trying to sell drugs — had rectal cancer, and suffers from repeated infections, according to the letter.

She now needs surgery “as soon as possible or she is at significant risk of developing sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition,” the letter says.

She’s scheduled for release on April 28.

‘They’re Still People’

Rachel Connors, a DOCCS spokesperson, said the department “continues to evaluate all options in response to this public health crisis while preserving public safety.”

Advocates contend that Cuomo should also grant more clemency appeals due to the health crisis.

“Social distancing in prison is virtually impossible unless the population is dramatically reduced,” said Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law.

In 2016, the governor announced his administration would take a more merciful approach to handling clemency requests.

Cuomo, who touts himself as a criminal justice reformer, has commuted the sentences of two convicted criminals over the past year. Governors in some other states have released far more people.

“The looming disaster of COVID-19 in prison presents a necessity but also an opportunity to address mass incarceration by acting expansively re: clemency,” said Zeidman, who represents multiple prisoners seeking clemency.

Meanwhile, one family member of someone held in Clinton Correctional Facility says that prisoners with breathing issues are being left in their cells unless they have a high fever.

Prison officials maintain everyone locked up gets proper medical attention.

“They’re people too,” said the family member, who asked to remain anonymous. “They’ve made mistakes, some of them worse than others. But they’re still people.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.