What Can Be Done To Help Stop The Spread of Coronavirus In NY Prisons?

By Brendan Kennedy

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New York continues to lead the nation in response to the coronavirus outbreak. New Yorkers have been urged to observe social distancing if they have to leave their homes, and large gatherings of any kind are banned. But one place where it’s nearly impossible to observe these public health mandates are the prisons in New York State.

On the most recent episode of the Miranda Warnings podcast, Max Kenner, Executive Director of the Bard Prison Initiative, discusses the need for New York to step in and release sick and elderly inmates and those already granted parole — and the challenges inherent in doing so — to help stop the spread of the deadly virus.

“There are many people in prison who are ill or older that are approaching a parole date, or people in prison who received considerably more time 15 or 20 years ago for a crime than they would receive for a crime today, and there are people who have released by parole and are waiting for a release date in the coming weeks and months,” Kenner said.

“If they’re not in good health, Governor Cuomo has it in his power to consider letting some of them go earlier if they have a safe place to go,” Kenner continued.

Jail and prison systems in California, Ohio and other states have started releasing people in the past week and Kenner believes we could see that in New York before too long.

Reports of positive tests for inmates and prison staff have already been confirmed at Rikers Island, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and at other facilities across the state, so it is only a matter of time before the spread of coronavirus within prisons becomes its own public health crisis.

“There is a terrible and terrifying public health risk in introducing the virus to the prisons,” Kenner told show host David Miranda. “Once this virus is introduced to a prison, there is a risk of it ripping through the entire population very quickly.”

Kenner goes on to describe how this virus is even more “invisible” in prison than it is outside, which presents huge challenges for leaders in the Department of Corrections to identify and quarantine inmates.

Laying out two different scenarios, Kenner describes that the public won’t know what is happening in prisons until there is either mass testing or large numbers of inmates get sick.

When discussing recent reports that the Board of Corrections is urging lawmakers to release vulnerable inmates to help stop the transmission of coronavirus, Kenner discusses the concerns many in the prison advocacy field have about protecting this population of inmates.

“All of us are very concerned,” Kenner said. “This is a population that doesn’t necessarily have a better place to go to, which is a provision of granting someone a release and makes this logistically fraught.”

When asked about what should and can be done to help combat the spread of the coronavirus within prisons, Kenner provided a sobering perspective on what can actually be accomplished considering the current state of affairs.

“It would be irresponsible for me or any other advocate to say they knew exactly what the right thing to do here is,” Kenner said. “The challenge of doing this in the right way is near impossible to do at a fast-pace or to do while government officials have to deal with everything else related to this crisis. But there is a moral imperative to protect people who are inside the prisons and vulnerable. So something must be done but it really is ‘easier said than done.'”

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