NEW YORK — The New York State Department of Correction and Community Supervision (DOCCS) has reported yet another death, this time at Attica Prison in Western New York. The death represents the fifth incarcerated person to die of COVID-19 in December and comes amid a spike in COVID in the community and behind bars, as the highly contagious Omicron variant sweeps the world. Positive tests in the community and in NY State prisons have increased dramatically since December 16. To date, Governor Kathy Hochul has issued clemency to only one incarcerated New Yorker. In response, Jose Saldana, Director of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) Campaign, released the following statement:
“We grieve for yet another COVID death in New York’s prisons. New York’s leaders must take action before more people die. So far, they are failing incarcerated New Yorkers and their families. Five times more people have died in prison of COVID than been granted clemency by Governor Hochul. Hochul must grant clemencies immediately as a matter of public health. At the same time, we need the Governor and legislative leaders Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Carl Heastie to pass the Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole bills to provide meaningful pathways to release consideration.”
- New York’s prison system currently incarcerates more than two times more people than at the beginning of New York’s mass incarceration era, in 1970 (approximately 31,000 people vs. 12,059 people).
- The average age of death behind bars was only 58 before COVID because of state policy failures.
- The New York State Constitution allows Gov. Hochul to grant clemency at will, including sentencing commutations for incarcerated people.
- By the end of 2020, Gov. Cuomo had received 6,405 applications for clemency in the prior four years and granted only 21 sentence commutations.
- In his nearly 11 years in office, he granted only 41 total commutations.
- By comparison, then-CA Governor Jerry Brown granted 131 sentence commutations in just one day.
- There were 442 active COVID cases in NY prisons as of Dec. 10 and 570 as of Dec. 16.
- There are approximately 1,100 people identified by NYS DOCCS as women incarcerated in New York State prisons, of whom 54.9% are people of color, Black, and/or Latinx.
- Women, gender non-conforming people, and transgender people are deeply impacted by the carceral system as part of a continuum of gender-based oppression.
- Surveys show 95% of women in prisons and jails are survivors of trauma and abuse, often including sexual violence and intimate partner violence.
- In a survey in 2020 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women by The Correctional Association, 74% of 110 respondents identified that they had witnessed some form of violence or abuse by staff, including physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, while 53% of respondents reported experiencing these acts of violence by staff themselves.
- A report issued by Columbia University’s Center for Justice found that a person dies in New York State prisons on average every three days.
- 8 out of 10 incarcerated women are mothers and over 80,000 children have a parent who is incarcerated in a NYS DOCCS facility (Source: Osborne Association, NY Initiative for Incarcerated Parents).
- Over 105,000 children have a parent in prison or jail on any given day (Source: OCFS).
- Racism infects the parole release system just as it does every element of the criminal legal system. A white person in a New York prison is significantly more likely on average to be released on parole than a Black or Latinx person and the disparity widened in 2020, according to a Times Union analysis of the nearly 19,000 parole board decisions over the last two years. Importantly, these racial disparities are not new. In 2016, the New York Times conducted an investigation of parole release data and similarly found Black and Latinx people were significantly less likely to be released than their white counterparts.
- The People’s Campaign for Parole Justice is calling on lawmakers in Albany to pass two bills that will address this pandemic behind bars and help prevent similar tragedies in the future:
- Elder Parole (S.15A/A.3475A) would allow the State Board of Parole to provide an evaluation for potential parole release to incarcerated people classified by NYS DOCCS as older adults who have already served 15 or more years, including some of the state’s oldest and most infirm incarcerated people.
- Fair and Timely Parole (S.7514/A.4231A) would provide more meaningful parole reviews for incarcerated people who are already parole eligible.