jails_prisons_criminal justice_incarcerated

Office of the Governor

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., in 2015.

There is some positive news around criminal justice in New York State. In the wake of massive protests against police brutality, in the first half of June, the state legislature passed the PoliceSTAT Act, the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (S.1830-C/A.10609), requiring police to report the race, ethnicity and sex of anyone arrested and charged with a misdemeanor or violation, as well as of anyone who dies while in police custody or an attempt to establish custody. The legislature also passed a series of major reforms to policing and police accountability in the Safer NY Act, including the repeal of 50-A, which protects the NYPD from accountability.

But while state legislators rightly passed these essential reforms, another crucial area of reform has been moved to the background: the intersection of COVID-19 and New York State detention machine. 

We are interfaith clergy seeking to return the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons and jails to the frontlines of action.  We join the Alliance of Families in demanding that Governor Cuomo release incarcerated people who fall into the CDC-defined categories of those who are vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

The pandemic has not gone away and incarcerated people remain at great risk of contracting and dying from the virus.  An April 20 article in The Nation cited data compiled by the Marshall Project reporting at least 63 deaths in prisons from COVID-19. (In early July, City Limits reported that, “Months after New York first became a hotspot for COVID-19 cases, those in prison are not being tested at rates even close to that of the broader state population,” and it earlier reported that a lack of transparency was creating confusion around how many prison deaths were being investigated for a possible COVID connection.)

Although thousands nationally have been released early to slow the outbreak, about 2 million people remain incarcerated. Over 40,000 New York families have loved ones behind bars in New York State prisons and jails.

In order to insulate facilities from outside infections, prisons and jails have suspended in-person visits. But for people with incarcerated loved ones, that measure carries a devastating emotional toll.

When someone goes to prison, their family members do that time with them; including worrying, visiting, writing and praying for their health and safety. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their worst fears. Healthcare in prisons is notoriously inadequate already. Now, when the response to the virus in the general public is slow and unsteady, these families and their loved ones have every reason to be terrified that the supplies and support required to ensure good health and safety will be lacking. 

As The Nation article explains, “Without the chance to interact face to face, inmates’ friends and relatives—including some 2.7 million children—are forced to speculate from afar. For them, mounting evidence of Covid-19’s spread inside prisons hits particularly close to home. They hear reports of dire conditions and rumors that some facilities quarantine healthy inmates in the same units as sick ones. They read harrowing stories, like a mother whose 36-year-old son called from a New Jersey jail, complaining of flu-like symptoms, and passed away two days later.”

We have been informed by family members that in numerous facilities the “protocol” if someone is exhibiting symptoms that indicate possible COVID-19 infection is that they will be quarantined but not taken to a hospital because “they wouldn’t get different treatment at an outside hospital.” The in-house capacity for treating COVID-19 infected people is only about 20 beds per facility.  We have been informed that there are facilities where no doctors and no mental health staff are coming to work. All medical and mental health care is being provided by a skeleton crew of overworked nurses. Unless there are some radical changes in the thought processes and attitudes of DOCCS administrators and Governor Cuomo, hundreds, if not thousands of incarcerated people and staff in DOCCS are going to die! 

As people of faith, it is our moral duty to speak up for incarcerated people and their families. We call upon the governor and the New York State legislature to move quickly to release people vulnerable to COVID-19 from prisons and jails. 

Dr. Rabbi Barat Ellman is an adjunct professor at Fordham University and a member of the adjunct faculty at the Bard Prison Initiative.

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In Solidarity:

Rabbi MIRA RIVERA (Board Certified Chaplain), Romemu

Rabbi Max Reynolds, Reconstructionist

Rabbi Shaya Isenberg, Yerusha.org

Rabbi Judith B. Edelstein

Chaplain Kim Eliano, NY Faith Leaders for Criminal Justice Reform

Rabbi David Adelson, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann , Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives (Rabbi Emerita)

Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, davka.org

Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, Malkhut: Progressive Jewish Spirituality in Queens

Rabbi Drorah Setel

Rabbi Jeffrey Marker, NY Board of Rabbis, OHALAH (Jewish Renewal clergy), Rabbinical Assembly

Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, Founding Spiritual Leader Lab/Shul NYC Non-Denominational

The Rev. Kaji Dousa, Senior Pastor, Park Avenue Christian Church

Rabbi Brian Fink, Marlene Meyerson, JCC Manhattan

Rabbi Nancy H Wiener, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Rev. Lea Matthews, St. Paul & St. Andrew

Rabbi Linda Motzkin, Temple Sinai, Saratoga Springs, NY

Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, (Retired)

Rabbi Joshua Stanton, East End Temple

Rabbi Susan Falk, Reconstructionist

Rabbi Steven Altarescu, Reform Temple of Putnam County

Rabbi Bob Gluck, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association

Rabbi Dr. Barat Ellman

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, SAJ

The Rev. Elizabeth G Maxwell, Rector, Church of the Ascension, NYC

The Rev. Marie A. Tatro, Vicar for Community Justice Ministry, Episcopal Diocese of Long Island Bishop Senior Staff Member in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, and Priest Associate at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, NY

Rev. Jeff Wells, lead pastor, The Church of the Village NYC

Rabi Mira Rivera, Romemu

Rev. David C. Parsons, St. John-St. Matthew Emmanuel Lutheran Church

Lay Leader Linda Yannone, United Church of Christ, FCC Ithaca

Hoshi Bokushu Tucker, Village Zendo

Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, SAJ-Judaism that Stands for All

Rev. Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, PCUSA/UCC

Rev. Mark A. Thompson, Host of “Make It Plain”

Rev. Micah Bucey, Minister, Judson Memorial Church

Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister, Judson Memorial Church

Imam Khalid Latif, Executive Director, The Islamic Center at NYU