By: James Bowen
OSSINING, N.Y.— More than 40 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in less than a month by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) in Sing Sing prison in Ossining. Juan Mosquero was the first of three confirmed deaths due to the Coronavirus on March 30 — just two weeks after an employee had also tested positive for the virus.
Correction officers across 22 prison facilities in New York are collectively struggling to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing in the prison is impractical, one former Sing Sing prisoner said.
“The cell leads to a sense of isolation,” Damian Rossney, who now teaches at Sing Sing, said. “If you’re locked in your cell most of the day, that’s social distancing by definition.”
To reduce crowding in prisons across New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the release of aging prisoners. In March, Cuomo released over 785 detainees from New York prisons — but none from Sing Sing.
No new arrivals have reached Sing Sing since the start of the quarantine. Thomas Mailey, of the DOCCS, says Sing Sing is trying to stop the spread of the disease.
“We aren’t taking in any more inmates at Sing Sing prison,” he said. Approximately 211 people across correctional facilities statewide have tested positive for the virus.
The DOCCS also suspended family visitation at Sing Sing until April 11. On April 15, three people detained in Sing Sing were transported and buried at the Fishkill Correctional cemetery to prevent the spread of the disease. As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protocol, avoiding contact with deceased bodies to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
On April 3, protesters stood outside the maximum-security correctional facility, pleading for the release of older detainees, who are at risk; especially after 58-year-old Mosquero’s death. Family members of these detainees raised signs reading “#ClemencyNow” and “#LetThemGo” to support sick prison workers, who are manufacturing state-regulated N95 masks, but aren’t allowed to wear them.
“People age much faster in prison,” David George, the associate director of the advocacy group Release Aging People in Prison, said. “But all people are vulnerable due to serious chronic, underlying conditions that people have that compromise their immune system.” Some of these conditions include hypertension, diabetes, HIV, cancer, and asthma.
Across New York state, prison facilities are experiencing elevated numbers of infection. Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the only female maximum-security prison in New York, experienced 24 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past month.
“People are getting sick and infection rates are extremely high. There’s limited masks,” Lyra Fuchs, a communications assistant who conducts research about social, environmental, and economic justice for Cloud To Street, said. “They’ve only started being able to wear masks last week. It used to be against prison rules to wear masks because it covers a part of your face and that was seen as a security risk.”
But the preventative measures are futile because the virus is already in the facilities, George said. He called prisons a hot-bed for disease, due to infrequent sanitization of cells. “Nearly 1,000 prison staff have tested positive for the virus in over 20 prisons in New York state,” he added.
While people in prison are allowed to wear masks, the state-issued handkerchiefs are small and inadequate, and aren’t in line with public health standards, George said. This reform came after an initiative by DOCCS on April 1.
According to April 2020 data from the DOCCS, 723 prison staff members and 154 incarcerees have confirmed coronavirus cases across New York. Melissa DeRosa, a DOCCS spokesperson, said the state has begun to evaluate non-violent offenders aged 55 or older who have 90 days left on their sentences.
Legislative reform is underway— just not at the speed lawmakers prefer. On April 3, Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to allow more detainees to be eligible for early release in Louisiana. However, the law is yet to be applied in New York.
On April 26, Steven Zeidman, a law professor at CUNY School of Law, tweeted criticism of Gov. Cuomo’s and the NYS Department of Corrections’ inaction.
“Seems Gov. Cuomo won’t act to decarcerate unless more people die behind bars. People need to be released—now,” Zeidman said in his tweet.
The number of Sing Sing employees infected is rising daily.
“Another 47 prison staff members and incarcerated people tested positive for COVID-19, 1,242 total,” Zeidman tweeted.
“Imagine the number if there was anything like widespread testing. And still, nothing from the governor,” Zeidman said in his tweet.
But another problem is whether prisoners will be given the opportunity to find employment upon release from prison. This is a problem the Executive Director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison at Sing Sing, Sean Pica, is tackling. The program aims to equip Sing Sing prisoners with the skills and education to be able to succeed outside of the prison system.
“There is a dichotomy here that we’re struggling to fix. This is a country built on second chances, but it ends at the prison system,” Pica said in a video.
But the reintroduction of nonviolent offenders into society upon early release would be a challenge for under-equipped graduates of the Hudson Link program, who are “people on the inside.”
These people have raised concerns as to whether convicts will be able to find employment upon release—especially in a COVID-19 struck economy, Ivan Calaff, who worked with Mosquero at the Sing Sing law library and spent 13 years incarcerated there, says.
“They’re literally undocumented,” Calaff said. “Right now, they can’t get an I.D. because nationwide, [Departments of Motor Vehicles] are closed. We have all these blocks — all this lack of access. What are people supposed to do?”
As recently freed people on the inside struggle to assimilate back into society due to a lack of resources, Joseph Ryder, a New York Police Department (NYPD) Officer, believes temporary release may not be a feasible solution.
“[I don’t think] they’re going to put out an email to all these convicts and be like ‘Alright, it’s time to report back to jail!” Ryder, stationed at the 73rd Precinct, said.
As of April 20, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has freed over 1,400 people from city jails. But Sing Sing has yet to administer even its first release—and 1,700 prisoners are still crowded in the prison.