The Intellectual Situation
Correspondence from state prison
On March 7, nearly a week after the first case of Covid-19 is confirmed in New York State, Andrew Cuomo says: “I have officially done a declaration of emergency.” It is early evening when I catch up with the news. I am in a car, in the passenger seat. Michael is driving. We are returning home after visiting our friend, whom I’ll call Gregory, out on Long Island. Nine days earlier, Gregory had come home from prison. He was 23 when he went in; now he is 61. Most of what he accumulated in those thirty-eight years he’d left behind, but some things he found too precious to part with. A stack of family photographs. Several pairs of sneakers. A few dozen bars of soap, which, he later tells me, are a form of currency inside. He’d deposited these things in Michael’s trunk the day he was released, for safekeeping, until he could find a more stable living situation. On the day we visit, Gregory asks us to open the trunk. “I want my soap,” he says. We are somewhat amused, Michael and I, when he pulls out seven or eight bars. He is living in a shelter, sharing a room, a bathroom, and has one single drawer for his personal belongings. “I like my soap,” he says. “If I don’t take it, I’ll just have to buy more. Now why would I want to do that?”
Andrew Cuomo says on March 9 that Corcraft, a New York State–run company, will begin producing hand sanitizer. “It has a very nice floral bouquet,” he says. “I detect lilac. Hydrangea. Tulips.” Corcraft is operated by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs New York’s state prisons. I do not hear Andrew Cuomo say this. I do not hear him say that around 2,100 people incarcerated by the state work for Corcraft. Or that they make, on average, 65 cents an hour, can earn as little as 16 cents an hour. Or that they themselves are unable to use hand sanitizer because in prison it is considered contraband. “We are problem solvers,” Cuomo says. We, as in, the “state of New York, Empire State, progressive capital of the nation.”
On March 11, I read that advocacy organizations in New York, including the Parole Preparation Project, where for the past two years I have been a volunteer, held a press conference outside City Hall. Parole Prep, a project of the National Lawyers Guild, advocates for incarcerated people serving long-term or life sentences and provides them with direct support. As a volunteer I am matched with one incarcerated person at a time and work with them, usually for a period of six to eight months, but sometimes longer, as they assemble their application for parole release and prepare to be interviewed by the Board of Parole.
“We call on the governor to start the process of extending clemencies to the vulnerable elderly incarcerated men and women in state prisons, who are facing death during this serious time,” the organizations say in a statement.
On March 12, I am forwarded a report published recently by the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), an independent oversight group that conducts surveys of incarcerated people. The report documents the inadequacies of health care and material conditions inside New York State prisons between July and September 2019. Of the nearly 1,200 survey respondents, 74 percent reported being unable to see a doctor or provider when they needed to. “They don’t have working sinks or working toilets, they have vermin in their cells, crumbling infrastructure,” CANY’s executive director says in an interview.
Later that day, Andrew Cuomo speaks of the measures he will take to prevent spread of the virus. “This is about science,” he says. “This is about data, and let the science and let the data make the decisions.” “Reduce the density,” he says. “No gathering with five hundred people or more.”
“We are also prioritizing vulnerable populations,” Andrew Cuomo says on March 13. “Senior citizens, people with compromised immune systems, and people with underlying illnesses, especially respiratory illnesses.” I know that between 2007 and 2016, as New York’s overall prison population fell by 17 percent — the result, in part, of advocacy to overhaul drug laws and reduce penalties for crimes deemed nonviolent — the number of people inside age 50 or older rose by 46 percent. The most recent data, from January 2018, shows that the state incarcerates more than ten thousand people over the age of 50. Most of these people are black or Latinx. Many of them are serving long sentences, have been in prison for twenty, thirty, forty years, due to draconian sentencing laws and unjust parole practices. New York’s parole commissioners, who are meant to weigh the severity of a candidate’s crime of conviction against both their accomplishments and their prospective risk to the community, tend to fixate on the original offense — especially when it was violent — and all but ignore what the person has done since. Even DOCCS’s own data, which shows that, once released, incarcerated people over the age of 50 rarely commit new crimes, holds little sway.
“Several groups across the state are doing last-minute fundraisers for commissary funds for people in prison,” reads an email I receive from Parole Prep’s executive director, Michelle Lewin. “The hope is that with extra money people inside can buy soap, canned goods or whatever else they need to survive if the prisons are locked down.”
People who are incarcerated are not permitted to hold paper money or coins. The funds they earn at work or receive from the outside world are held in what the state calls an “offender account.” They can send this money home or they can use it to buy things from the prison commissary. Things that we consider basic medical necessities — antihistamines, antifungal creams, eye drops — are only available through the commissary, and while they may appear inexpensive, they can cost an incarcerated person several days’ wages. The 65 cents an hour they earn goes right back to the prison. A bar of Ivory soap costs 40 cents, of Lever 2000 84 cents. Halls Mentho-Lyptus cough drops, the only kind of cold medication available without a trip to the infirmary, cost 69 cents. A six-ounce bag of chips ranges from 75 cents to $1.25. In 2016, one nonpartisan nonprofit group estimated that prison and jail commissary sales amount to $1.6 billion per year nationwide, a number they now believe could be even higher.
On March 14, I read that a woman in New York City has died from Covid-19. She is presumed the first in the state.
I read that DOCCS has suspended visitation at correctional facilities statewide. No-contact legal visits are still permitted.
In an interview, a physician and epidemiologist who oversees a nonprofit working to improve health care in jails and prisons says that “all of the new terms of art that everybody has learned in the last two weeks, like ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-quarantine’ and ‘flattening the curve’ of the epidemic — all of these things are impossible in jails and prisons, or are made worse by the way jails and prisons are operated. Everything about incarceration is going to make that curve go more steeply up.”
This is why advocacy organizations are demanding that vulnerable incarcerated people be released. If one person gets the virus, little can be done to stop the spread. Reducing the number of people in prison — reducing, in effect, the density — will help protect both those who are released from prison and those who stay behind. It will also help protect the broader community. We may think of prisons as being isolated from the rest of the population, but they’re not: correctional officers and other staff go home at the end of the day to their families and come back the next.
I read an email that says, “JPay, the system we use to put money into people’s commissary accounts, has a transaction limit of $300 per every three days. We’ve hit the limit on all the accounts we’ve created. We need help getting money onto people’s books ASAP!” I add six people to my JPay account and send them each $50. I am reimbursed $335.94 because every transaction of $50 or more incurs a fee of $5.99. Transactions under $50 also incur fees; these range from $1.99 to $3.99 depending on the amount of money sent. When three days elapse, I will do it again. I will do it again three days after that.
On March 15, I read that the number of people in New York who have died from Covid-19 is now three. “We’re fighting the virus, we’re fighting fear,” Andrew Cuomo says. “The fear is winning, and the fear is disconnected from the facts. Fear is an emotion. Emotion can often be disconnected from facts, and that’s what’s happening here.”
Because I have sent money to people through JPay, they can now contact me directly. I begin to hear from people who, because they are incarcerated, have little access to facts about the virus or its symptoms. They don’t know who in the facility has contracted it or how widely it has spread, or what the facility has planned in order to prevent the most vulnerable from getting sick.
Some send letters to my home, through the postal service. Others write through JPay’s email service. Approximately 4,800 characters requires one “stamp”; longer emails require more stamps. Each attachment requires one stamp. Each thirty-second “video gram” requires four stamps. Ten stamps cost $3. One hundred stamps cost $23.
Because visitations have been suspended, DOCCS promises that everyone will receive at least one free phone call, two free emails, and five free postage stamps per week, though I hear this has yet to be implemented. In a few weeks, DOCCS will increase the number of calls to two.
Just want you to know that they have suspended all activities involving civilians, I read in an email from an incarcerated person. It is March 16. This means shutting down some areas of the gym and school and college courses (with the exception of computer assignments). The guards are doing double shifts.
This is not exactly what the incarcerated person wrote. I am paraphrasing because JPay and DOCCS monitor email correspondence using keyword searches and other surveillance technologies. The extent of the monitoring capabilities is not known, but I am proceeding under the assumption that anything I quote directly can be searched and traced to the writer. When I am relaying information about conditions inside, based on what either incarcerated people or advocates have reported, I will continue to paraphrase. I will also continue to withhold the name of the facility where a person is housed or about which I am relaying what I have heard or read.
Andrew Cuomo says, “There will be no more gatherings of fifty-plus people.” He says, “We’re doing everything we can to flatten the curve.”
On March 17, an advocate writes, Parole officers have stopped visiting the prospective addresses of those who have been granted release. Before an incarcerated person can return to the community on parole, DOCCS must verify and approve the person’s living arrangements. Until their housing is approved, a person can be held indefinitely. If home visits are no longer taking place, it means that people who are meant to go free will not go free.
Heard from a friend that someone was placed in isolation with fever, I read from an advocate. Heard that a CO tested positive, I read from another. Heard that people are saying someone recently transferred has it and is isolated in the infirmary, I read from yet another.
They won’t tell me anything medical or if anyone has tested positive, an advocate says, after phoning a facility directly. They told me to call the public relations office or DOCCS. This is the status quo: there are rumors circulating but no one to confirm or deny them.
Just heard from someone who is older and has multiple underlying health conditions, I read on March 18. There are no protocols in place for particularly vulnerable people. Everyone is still eating in the mess hall but they have been given bleach products to clean dorms.
I ask an incarcerated person if they are allowed to keep Tylenol with them in their bunks. Anything over the counter would have to come from medical call-out here, they reply. You’d need to put in a request to see the nurse at the on-site infirmary (sick call), who would evaluate you and, if they think it’s necessary, schedule you to see your primary care provider. Your provider can then prescribe it to you, although they will issue you only one week’s supply. This process takes about three weeks from start to finish, so that by the time you get the medication, whatever was ailing you has already subsided. At best, the nurse might be able to give you one dose of generic aspirin or generic cough syrup.
As of October 2017, there are thirty-five prisons in New York State with active infirmaries (some facilities share), with a total capacity of 738 beds. Incarcerated people who need access to long-term care may be sent to a regional medical unit (RMU), which is akin to a skilled nursing facility. (The first of these was designed in the 1980s in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.) There are five RMUs spread across the state, with a total capacity of 402 beds. Patients whose needs cannot be met either by the on-site infirmary or the RMU — including patients requiring the critical support of a ventilator — are sent to nearby hospitals. According to data from 2018, there are more than fifty thousand people incarcerated in New York State.
“There’s an old Italian expression,” Andrew Cuomo says. “A rich person is a person who has their health. Everything else you can figure out.”
“Words matter,” Andrew Cuomo says. “Quarantine. Lockdown. These words are scary words.”
On March 19 an advocate reports, Just heard from someone inside that they are enforcing “one empty seat” between people in the mess hall. They are allowing limited numbers of people at a time to go to commissary (which is delaying access to commissary obviously). Recent packages have all arrived.
During his March 20 briefing, Andrew Cuomo says, “We’re going to put out an executive order today: New York State on PAUSE. Policies that Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone. Uniform Safety for Everyone. Why? Because what I do will affect you and what you do will affect me. Talk about community and interconnection and interdependence. This is the very realistic embodiment of that. We need everyone to be safe, otherwise, no one can be safe.”
“At this point, can inmates and detainees use hand sanitizer?” a reporter asks later on. “Sure,” Cuomo says.
A JPay email arrives from an incarcerated person on March 21. I’m sorry that you have to be deprived out there. In here we laugh cuz now maybe people feel, even just a lil’, what it’s like to be locked down :-) I do want things for you to get better though. Please keep taking good care of yourself and stay strong mentally in these trying times.
“Practice humanity,” Andrew Cuomo says. “We don’t talk about practicing humanity, but now, if ever there is a time to practice humanity, the time is now. The time is now to show some kindness, show some compassion to people, show some gentility — even as a New Yorker.
Yes, we can be tough. Yes, this is a dense environment. It can be a difficult environment. It can also be the most supportive, courageous community that you have ever seen.”
On March 22, Andrew Cuomo says of New York State: “Total number of cases, 15,000. Total number of new cases, 4,800 new cases. . . . 114 deaths in New York, total number of deaths: 374 in the country. And that is a sobering, sad, and really distressing fact that should give everyone pause because that’s what this is all about, is saving lives.”
Heard that some guys up in the hospital are quarantined, I read in an email from an incarcerated person. Heard that some of the officers are out too. We are being told these officers are out on “vacation.” Also, why are they still transferring prisoners to other prisons? You’d think they would keep everyone in place to avoid spreading the infection out across the state, right?
Harvey Weinstein, who only a few days earlier was transferred from Rikers Island to Wende Correctional Facility, in Erie County, is one of two people at the prison to test positive for Covid-19. In an article about Weinstein, Michael Powers, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA), the union representing corrections officers, tells the reporter that the union asked state corrections officials to stop transferring inmates between state facilities and from local jails to state prisons. “There is no better breeding ground for this virus than a closed environment such as a correctional facility,” he says.
At any point, Andrew Cuomo can release people from unsafe conditions in prison. He can release all vulnerable people — people who are over 50 years old, people with HIV/AIDS, people with chronic illnesses, people with comorbid medical conditions, pregnant people, and trans people — using executive clemency, reducing a person’s sentence to match the amount of time they have already been in prison, leading to their immediate release.
He can grant immediate release to all vulnerable people who have reached their minimum sentence or are currently eligible for parole.
He can grant immediate release to all people in prison who have been granted parole but have yet to be released to community supervision.
He can, if he wants to, grant immediate release even to people who are still five or ten or twenty years away from their release dates.
He doesn’t have to appeal to state agencies or overcome bureaucratic hurdles.
He can release them all.
“We are getting reports every day of more infections inside NYS prisons of both COs and incarcerated people,” I read in an email from Michelle of Parole Prep. It is March 23. “We want to create a document or tracking system of some sort that tallies the infections in each prison and follows them over time.” Someone makes a spreadsheet and shares it. The tallies are collected from reporting by people inside, in the news, and from official statements made by DOCCS. Because nobody’s names are known, the tallies can only ever be estimates, and tracking any one person’s progress over time is a nearly impossible task.
An advocate reports, Heard no water coming out of the sinks, and folks are not allowed to take showers. Instead they are giving them buckets of hot water every morning.
Another advocate reports, Heard a guy had shortness of breath and started coughing up blood. He was taken to an outside hospital.
“Are you considering clemency for elderly New Yorkers in state prisons?” a reporter asks Andrew Cuomo at his press briefing. “It’s something we’re looking at,” he replies.
Jose Saldana is the director of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, an organization that works to release older and aging people and those serving long and life sentences from prison. “I was released a little over two years ago after thirty-eight years of incarceration,” he says on March 24. “This virus is going to kill some of the men that I left behind.”
Not only do prisons offer “substandard health care,” Saldana says, but “we age differently in prison.” This is not embellishment. While 65 years is the conventional cutoff used to define old age in the general US population, in prison old age typically commences at 50 or 55 years, according to multiple scientific papers. “And now comes a deadly virus that all health experts say is fatal to the very group that’s already dying at a young age.”
“We’re going to make it because I love New York,” Andrew Cuomo says. “And I love New York because New York loves you. New York loves all of you. Black and white and brown and Asian and short and tall and gay and straight. New York loves everyone. That’s why I love New York. It always has, it always will. And at the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day — and this is a long day — love wins, always. And it will win again through this virus.”
“There’s a gentleman who I still look to for guidance and for leadership and for inspiration,” Andrew Cuomo says on March 25. “He’s not here anymore for you, he’s still here for me.” He is speaking of his father, Mario, who was governor of New York from 1983 to 1994. “He said things more profound and more beautifully than most other people ever have, and one of the things he said that is so appropriate for today: ‘We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech that I could write what a proper government should be. The idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings — reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race, or sex, or geography, or political affiliation.’ That is New York. It is that closeness, that concept of family, of community.”
An advocate reports being unable to send money to commissary accounts through JPay. I keep getting an error message, she says. Another advocate replies, Sending funds to multiple people within three days sets off fraud protection. You have to wait seventy-two hours from the first failed payment, then call JPay. Sometimes the system lets you send multiple payments, sometimes it doesn’t.
“My daughter is my best friend,” Donna Robinson says over Zoom, on a forum hosted by RAPP. In 2016, her daughter, then 40, was sentenced to fifteen years to life. She is currently incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, in Westchester County. “In all of this madness I look forward to her calling me every day. If I don’t get that phone call, I don’t know what’s happened to my child. I can’t eat, I can’t function. I have to know that she is OK.”
“Obviously, the health and safety of our inmates and our staff is a top priority for us,” Attorney General William Barr says on March 26, of people who are incarcerated or work in the federal system. “We take seriously our responsibility to protect those who are put in our custody. . . . We are now in the process of trying to expand home confinement as part of trying to control the spread of this infection.” The expansion, Barr says, would reach “older prisoners who have served substantial parts of their sentences and no longer pose a threat and may have underlying conditions that make them particularly vulnerable.”
I read an email that says, Heard people are panicked because multiple guards/staff told them that 89 percent of them were going to get the virus and 50 percent were going to die and that they would receive no medical help!
“We’re hearing lots of statements like these coming from guards at prisons all over,” Michelle writes in a reply. “They’re definitely trying to scare people.”
In another facility, a guard told people inside that he hopes everyone catches it and dies.
At some facilities, people are being offered only two showers a week.
At some facilities, people are resorting to washing themselves with bleach.
“These are our parents and our grandparents,” Andrew Cuomo says on March 27. “These are our aunts, our uncles. These are our relatives who are sick and every instinct says protect them, help them because they need us, and those are the exact people that this enemy attacks. . . . And ten years from now, you’ll be talking about today, to your children or your grandchildren, and you will shed a tear because you will remember the lives lost and you’ll remember their faces and you’ll remember their names.”
On March 28 I read that, the night before, Andrew Cuomo told MSNBC that he will release approximately 1,100 people in state jails “because they violated parole for nonserious reasons.” He says nothing about release from state prisons, about any of the older or vulnerable people inside.
I read an email from Michelle with the subject line: “Urgent. Need Letter for Every Applicant Over 50 and those with Health Issues.” The email asks all Parole Prep volunteer teams to draft letters to the governor, asking for clemency on behalf of their applicants. “Part of our strategy now is to put forward to the Governor names . . . for possible clemency,” she writes. “While most applications will ultimately be denied, we have hope that some may be considered.” A team of more than thirty editors comes together to help.
Juan Mosquero, a 58-year-old clerk in the law library at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, dies on March 30. He had been quarantined in the infirmary for about ten days with flu-like symptoms, including difficulty breathing. He was treated with generic acetaminophen. Mosquero, who had been incarcerated since 2012, was serving a sentence of up to thirty-five years in prison.
Later it is confirmed that he had tested positive for Covid-19.
As of the previous day, official data released by DOCCS confirms that seventeen individuals incarcerated in New York State prisons have tested positive for the virus. The tally in the advocacy spreadsheet, which draws on reports from news media, DOCCS staff members, and people inside, counts seventy-five people.
I read that Andrew Cuomo said he has no immediate plans to expand prison release.
A family member’s loved one inside has written, My greatest fear is that I will die in prison.
On March 31, lawyers for California governor Gavin Newsom tell a panel of federal judges the state will take “extraordinary and unprecedented protective measures” to slow the spread of the virus within California’s thirty-five prisons. The plan would grant early parole and release of “up to approximately” 3,500 men and women within sixty days of release. Only those convicted of “nonviolent crimes” will be eligible.
An incarcerated person sends me a report of a censored email. “Censored email information: Your JPay Mail was censored. To: Sarah Resnick. Reason: DOCCS Policy: Concerns plans for activities which violate DOCCS policies.”
I want you to know what’s really going on, an incarcerated person writes, yet it would appear they are resorting to preventing Free Expression. Why wouldn’t they allow us to tell our loved ones exactly what’s happening here, happening with us? Don’t I have the right to tell you exactly what’s going on?
I hear that at some facilities incarcerated people who are sick are being moved into Special Housing Units (SHU) — or what we know more colloquially as solitary confinement, the box, the hole. They are, in this way, being punished because they are sick.
A family member writes, on April 1, My loved one reports that there is no toilet paper at his facility and people are using socks.
On April 2, I read that Governor Andy Beshear, of Kentucky, has issued an executive order commuting the sentences of more than nine hundred people incarcerated in state prisons. Those eligible were selected because of health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus. Only those people in prison for crimes considered nonviolent and nonsexual will be released, the governor says.
“Some states are letting people out of prison,” President Trump says. “Some people are getting out that are very serious criminals, in some states. And I don’t like that. I don’t like it. . . . And we don’t like it. The people don’t like it. And we’re looking in to see if I have the right to stop it in some cases.”
“This is the most powerless and lonely I felt in my whole bid,” a person incarcerated in New York State says. I am listening to a conversation that an advocate has recorded and posted online. “It’s scary, man. You’ve never heard me cry before. I don’t want to cry on the phone in front of people right now. But I don’t want to die in jail by myself. I’ve only got three years left. . . . I’m trying so hard to make it. . . . I just want to go home.”
On April 3, Barr orders the Bureau of Prisons to expand the group of people incarcerated at federal correctional facilities eligible for early release. “We are experiencing significant levels of infection at several of our facilities,” he writes in a memo. He says the bureau must quickly “move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions.” In the federal system, incarcerated people and staff living and working in prisons in Louisiana, Connecticut, and Ohio harbor a large number of the system’s positive coronavirus cases.
I hear that public defenders in New York have submitted a detailed blueprint of which individuals the governor should consider for immediate release, including those who are older than 50, suffer from critical medical conditions that put them at risk, or are due for release within the next twelve months.
I was told that in X facility a person presented to the infirmary with Covid-like symptoms, an advocate reports. He was very sick but was returned to the dorm after being informed that they would not test him. I was also told that a correctional officer went to Italy on vacation and did not self-quarantine on his return. He later became sick in the facility and needed to be taken to the infirmary. Five housing units are now under quarantine at this facility. Each unit holds somewhere between twenty and thirty people.
“We have no measures to lessen crowding in state prison,” I hear Andrew Cuomo say. “We have put in a number of regulations and rules to reduce the risk, but reducing the prison population, we don’t have any way to do that right now.”
A group of advocates gathers outside Sing Sing to mourn the death of Juan Mosquero. Most people stay in their cars, signs affixed to their windshields. The signs say things like free our elders and clemency is compassion and let them go.
“Dear volunteers,” Michelle writes in an email on April 6. “I just submitted your 85 clemency applications to the Governor’s office. . . . I promise to share whatever I hear as soon as I hear it.”
An incarcerated person reports, NYS Clean sanitizer is finally available throughout my facility. Everyone is encouraged to use it.
An incarcerated person at a different facility reports, The guards are keeping the hand sanitizer for themselves.
An advocate reports, They have started making wooden coffins at Auburn Correctional Facility, where they did not make them before. Correctional facilities have made pine coffins — effectively, rectangular wooden boxes — for more than a decade, but they were previously for use within the prison system and rarely sold to outside customers. Before the coronavirus, state facilities were producing around 225 coffins a week; now they are producing around 1,400.
I have sad news, an incarcerated person says. Yesterday, a guy who had been transferred to an outside hospital died from virus complications. I don’t know his name. We all knew this was coming, but it’s still a punch in the gut.
I’m having difficulty getting the pain medication I regularly take for my shoulder! an incarcerated person says on April 7. I’m also having problems with my sinuses. I have put in for sick call four times now and can’t get seen!! It’s because of all the officers bringing in the coronavirus.
An incarcerated person reports that, in his facility, five people were taken to the hospital this morning. They all had high fevers. One of the guys was on the same block as me. They’re saying the gym will serve as a triage center. As far as we know the outside hospital is not accepting any patients.
An attorney reports that one facility has suspended all its legal calls for the next week.
Official numbers released by DOCCS claim that in New York State, two incarcerated people and one staff person have died so far. They also claim that 201 staff have tested positive for Covid-19. They also claim that thirty-six incarcerated people have tested positive. Logically, this makes little sense. There are approximately three times as many incarcerated people in New York State as there are correctional officers. Yet, as DOCCS would have it, five times as many correctional officers have contracted the virus. By all accounts from people inside, only those ill enough to require hospitalization are being tested.
An incarcerated person reports, A hand-drawn poster taped up near the dorm entry says that all masks will be confiscated and that the wearer will be written up.
“For the families who are suffering, they’re not getting numb,” Andrew Cuomo says. “The pain is increasing. The grief is increasing. . . . You can’t save everyone. This virus is very good at what it does, and it kills vulnerable people, that’s what it does, and it does that very well, and we can’t stop that.”
An advocate reports hearing that a facility is manufacturing masks to send out to hospitals. The masks have three layers, two made of cloth, and one that’s a filter, the advocate writes. They are sending out between ten and twenty thousand a week. They are not allowed to wear the masks they are making.
Today 731 people die in New York.
On April 8, an incarcerated person writes, An old wise man (lol) once told me that circumstances don’t make us, they reveal us.
On April 9, DOCCS issues a memo stating that incarcerated people are now allowed to wear state-issued white handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses. Each incarcerated person will be issued three handkerchiefs, the memo states, “based on availability and as stock is replenished.” When worn, the face covering “will not extend further than the bridge of the nose or below the bottom of the chin.”
An incarcerated person writes, I heard from one of the officers that the administration here simply wants the virus to run its course, with the infections spreading until herd immunity is achieved.
“We’ve made numerous requests to the governor and to the office of mental health to make sure they’re providing our staff and our membership with the proper protective equipment that they need,” I read on April 10. The statement is made by John Harmon, the law enforcement vice president for NYSCOPBA. “Particularly masks are the big issue. Our requests have been denied. They’ve been continually denied.” Harmon says the union is preparing to file a lawsuit against the state.
I read about David Sell, who is incarcerated at Wende Correctional Facility. He says that while he was being treated for the virus he received nothing — no medicine, not even a change of clothes. “I asked the doctor how am I going to be treated, and she was basically just like ‘ride it out.’”
“There is no death penalty in New York,” Dr. Robert L. Cohen says in an interview. Cohen is a member of the Board of Correction, which oversees New York City’s jails. “They weren’t sent there to die — and they are going to die,” he says.
An incarcerated person writes, Today has been a sad and horrifying day. It is finally beginning to hit me. I am in this cage right now feeling light-headed and earlier I couldn’t smell my soap in the shower. Maybe it’s a psychological thing, I don’t know. It’s scary because no one has really told us what the symptoms are. I have no fever. Do you think it’s the virus?
Later, on May 14, when I am making final edits to this essay, I will learn that according to UCLA’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, there have been 380 confirmed deaths of people incarcerated in jails and prisons across the United States — a number already greater than the 329 formal death sentences that have been carried out in this country since 2010.
The mess hall is still running, I hear on April 11. We now sit at tables of four instead of eight. But what’s the point if we all pile up at the front to get our food?
I read online that Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, has issued commutations for 452 incarcerated people to curb the spread of Covid-19 in state prisons. Most of those scheduled to be released were convicted of drug- or property-related crimes. Among their incarcerated people and staff, Oklahoma’s prisons have only six known cases of Covid-19. In New York State, the official tally is now 638. Still Andrew Cuomo has yet to grant clemency to a single person.
The thing that has me baffled, an incarcerated person writes, is how no one from DOCCS decided we ought to be educated on this. Everything we know, we learned through the radio and from our family and friends.
On the BBC’s website, I watch drone footage of Hart Island, off the Bronx. For more than 150 years, the island has been used by city officials as a mass burial site for those with no next of kin or whose families don’t have enough money to pay for a funeral. Ordinarily around twenty-five people are interred there each week; since the coronavirus outbreak, that number has increased to more than one hundred each week. People incarcerated at Rikers usually perform the burials, but, according to the article that accompanies the video, contractors have recently taken over the job. I watch as workers in white hazmat suits stack rectangular wooden coffins in a mass grave.
On April 12, I look at pictures of the cemetery adjacent to Fishkill Correctional Facility, the final resting site for people who have died while incarcerated in New York State and who have no next of kin to claim their bodies. The advocate who took the photographs says that the cemetery is preparing new graves. The images show rows of gravestones — small, gray slabs, likely cement, each no bigger than a couple of stacked cinder blocks and shaped like a right-angle trapezoid. Atop their slanted fronts are three squares in relief, arranged in a way that reminds me of bowling ball finger holes. The images show tarps, held down by gravestones, covering the newly dug graves. Later I will read that six new graves are filled, four of them unmarked. The advocate believes that the people buried there have died from Covid-19.
An incarcerated person writes, The bandannas issued as masks by the state aren’t big enough to tie around our heads.
Another incarcerated person writes, The Regional Medical Unit is full! There are no beds available anymore, so even those who are sick are being held in place.
A third incarcerated person writes, It’s crazy in here.
I hear that at Sing Sing, another incarcerated person has died from Covid-19.
On April 13, I ask an incarcerated person how he is spending his days in quarantine. I try to keep myself busy, he responds. I start each day by making something to eat ’n enjoying a cup of coffee. Then I try to catch some news to keep up on what’s going on in the world. I do this til count time, which is at 11:30 AM. At around noon I exercise. I like to make sure I keep a balance between body ’n mind. I have several routines and usually they take about an hour. I stay hydrated, take my vitamins and supplements, and always make sure to rest the appropriate amount of time between sets. Then I shower. Between 1:30 and 3:30 PM or thereabouts, I’ll try to catch a movie or maybe write. Writing is my therapy and I do it as much as I can :-) I journal to keep track of my thoughts and feelings. Around 5:30 PM I’ll cook dinner. I’m a really good cook! At 6 PM I might watch the evening news and then later maybe another movie to round out my day. I love movies :-) I refuse to watch reality TV, which is for Neanderthals! Sometime between 9 and 10 PM I prepare 4 bed. I’ll go to the kiosk to see if u wrote. If I’ve heard from you, I will sleep on your words. In the morning I start by responding 2u, then begin my routine again.
This person has been incarcerated since the mid-1980s. He is 62 years old. He was granted parole several months ago, but because he is classed as a sex offender, he is stuck in prison until he can secure housing that meets all the requirements for someone on the registry. This is a formidable task even in nonpandemic times. People classed as sex offenders in New York are banned for life from accessing public housing; most are unable to live within one thousand feet of a school. This means that on the entire island of Manhattan, for example, there is almost nowhere where someone on the registry can live. Now that most of the counselors in state prisons have been deemed nonessential and are not coming into work, his housing search is on hold.
I read that others who have been granted release on parole are being held in prison because they have not completed their programming requirements. But with the pandemic ongoing, no programs are being run. Soon I will hear that the Vera Institute of Justice has determined that throughout the state 530 incarcerated people have been granted parole but have not yet been released.
Jose Saldana, RAPP’s director, says in an interview, “I don’t think Cuomo is really too concerned about people of color and poor people. I don’t just mean those who are incarcerated, but the tens of thousands of Black and brown families that will be impacted. I don’t think he’s concerned about them. He’s concerned with looking presidential, serving the interests of those he considers his constituents. He doesn’t consider us his constituents. He doesn’t think of us as equal citizens of New York. He has demonstrated that repeatedly. . . . Men — full, grown men — are emailing me, saying, ‘Please call my mother, and tell her I love her.’”
An incarcerated person writes, I am absolutely powerless to do anything to help my situation.
I read that another incarcerated person has died of complications related to Covid-19, although I do not learn the person’s name or at which facility they were living.
On April 14, I read a statement from Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor: “We have continued to monitor the Covid situation as it affects every corner of our state — as it relates to our prisons, DOCCS has previously lifted all technical parole violation warrants for those who do not pose a threat to public safety; earlier today DOCCS began the process of releasing those with ninety days or less remaining on their sentence who are 55 years of age or older, and whose underlying crime was not a violent felony or a sex offense.”
This is good news. But, as advocates confirm within a few days, it nevertheless excludes 98 percent of older people in New York State prisons. Most people who are old and in prison are there because they did something violent when they were young; it is only on account of the long sentences normalized in our country in the 1980s and 1990s that they are still in prison when they are old. Under Cuomo’s order, thousands of people will be excluded.
I read that official numbers released by DOCCS confirm that 618 employees and 150 incarcerated people have tested positive for Covid-19.
Although the governor’s office has acknowledged receiving the eighty-five clemency letters sent to them by Parole Prep, they have yet to respond to a single one.
“What we have learned through this process,” Andrew Cuomo says, “is that our actions determine our destiny.”
Today, April 15, 2020, I read that another unidentified incarcerated person has died from complications related to Covid-19.