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Concern Grows For Inmates In New York Prison System

Seth Wenig
An aerial photo shows New York's biggest lockup, Riker's Island jail, with the New York skyline in the background in 2014.

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault, has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to a story first published in the Niagara Gazette. Weinstein is in isolation in the Wende Correctional Facility in western New York. 

The news comes as advocates for prisoner rights are asking the state for a plan to protect inmates from getting the virus.

Khalil Cumberbatch is a prisoners’ rights advocate with New Yorkers United for Justice and a former inmate of New York State prisons, where he served six-and-a-half years. He says prisons are not set up for social distancing.

“Unlike society, people can’t social distance,” said Cumberbatch who said the prisons are “jam packed.”

“People are literally on top of each other,” he said.

Some inmates are housed in bunk beds in dormitory style spaces, and share a bathroom.

And Cumberbatch says health care is “nonexistent.”

Cumberbatch and other advocates are urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to come up with a comprehensive plan now to contain the virus within the prisons. They say otherwise, the disease could spread like “wildfire” in the prisons, and also endanger guards and other staff.

Over three dozen inmates at Riker’s Island have tested positive for the virus. A staff member at Sing Sing Prison is also sick, along with one person at the Nassau County jail. A correctional officer has already died of the disease.

The groups would also like to see a temporary moratorium on jailing people for minor parole violations, move nonviolent offenders to other sites to reduce the density in the prisons, and move elderly or immune-compromised inmates to home confinement instead.

They also want prisoners now employed making hand sanitizers and other health supplies to be paid overtime wages.   

Mark Morial is president of the National Urban League.

“It’s a civil rights issue, a human rights issue and humanitarian issue,” Morial said.  

Governor Cuomo was asked over the weekend about making plans for protecting prisoners from the virus, said he’s watching the situation “very closely.”

“We don’t have a significant issue yet of spread in the prison system,” Cuomo said “If we have a problem we’ll address it. But we don’t have that problem yet.”

Visitors are barred from the state’s prisons until at least April 11, under rules adopted by the state Department of Corrections on March 14. There’s a temporary halt to taking in prisoners from county jails, and all internal transfers of inmates have been halted, expect for medical or disciplinary reasons. And a ban on the use of hand sanitizers by inmates has been lifted.

An official at the Department of Corrections says the department is preparing by reviewing protocol and checking emergency supplies and has medical staff that is trained in infection control.  

On Monday, Cuomo said his administration is looking at whether to release elderly and sick prisoners.

“We’re looking at it, yes,” Cuomo said.

Advocates say the state needs to act quickly, they say “literally, lives are at stake.”

The states of California, Ohio and Texas are already releasing some prisoners to prevent  a major outbreak in their prisons. And there’s pressure on the city of New York to release prisoners, as well. 

Read the latest on WSHU’s coronavirus coveragehere

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Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.