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Opinion | In a New York Prison, Covid Became a Death Sentence

I received word my parishioner was dead on May 2. Another member of our church who used to speak with him weekly became concerned when he didn’t make his regular call. Since the pandemic’s start, he’d always tried to be the first in line at the phone, for fear of using the receiver after someone who was infected. A few days later, a hospital near Fishkill called her to report his death. She became emotional recently as we talked about the state’s handling of his case. “Life had no meaning for them,” she said of the prison officials.

No one outside the prison even knew he was sick.

I lived under the shadow of my parishioner’s death for almost a year, returning often to the sense of powerlessness he felt in trying to protect his own life. Eventually, I decided to look into the state’s Covid-19 prison response. What I’ve learned confirms the outrage and condemnation of watchdog groups, including the failing grade for Covid-19 response given to New York by the Prison Policy Initiative last June.

In the spring of 2020, when my parishioner died and while New York was reporting thousands of new cases daily statewide, it was already apparent that the state was unprepared to respond to the unfolding crisis in its prisons. In March that year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proudly announced the state’s own line of hand sanitizer, “made conveniently by the State of New York.” He failed to explain that the sanitizer was bottled in a state correctional facility by incarcerated people — at the same time that Covid-19 infections were skyrocketing in those places. The state didn’t actually mandate the availability of sanitizer in correctional facilities until the end of the month.

The close quarters of Fishkill’s congregate setting were a tinderbox for largely unmasked residents without adequate access to testing, but it wasn’t until mid-May — a week after my parishioner died — that the state reported it had completed distributing masks in its facilities. Advocacy groups say there wasn’t consistent access to masks even after that: Laurie Dick, who runs the grass-roots advocacy group Beacon Prison Action, told me that during a demonstration outside the prison around Thanksgiving, people inside opened windows and yelled that they needed masks. “I couldn’t believe that in November still they were struggling with masks,” she said.

After all this, the state largely withheld the single most important measure to save lives: the vaccine. The Health Department’s “phase one” vaccine eligibility list included residents of all state-run congregate living settings — except prisons. In March, Judge Alison Tuitt of the State Supreme Court in the Bronx ordered New York to offer vaccines to all incarcerated people, adding that their exclusion from access was “unfair and unjust.”

Who can we hold accountable for this failure to adequately protect New York State’s incarcerated people? I reached out to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which operates New York’s prisons, to ask who was in charge of the state’s Covid-19 prison policy. It provided me with extensive information, including this written statement: “From the onset of the Covid-19 health crisis, NYS DOCCS has worked around-the-clock with the governor’s office and multiple state agencies to ensure the protection of both the incarcerated population and our staff.” It is true that after the first peak of infections, DOCCS carried out Covid-19 mitigation measures, including the early release of almost 4,000 incarcerated people.

But the language of this statement is unclear about who ultimately calls the shots — DOCCS or Governor Cuomo. “If we don’t know who’s making the decisions, we don’t know who to engage,” said Stefen Short, a supervising lawyer at the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, which helped litigate the vaccine case against the state.

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