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Opinion |  In a New York prison, Covid was sentenced to death

I learned that my parishioner died on May 2nd. Another member of our church who spoke with him every week worried about not calling him regularly. Since the start of the pandemic, he had always tried to be the first in line on the phone for fear of using the receiver after an infected person. A few days later, a hospital near Fishkill called her to report her death. She became emotional recently as we spoke about the state’s handling of her case. “Life was meaningless to them,” she said of prison officials.

No one outside the prison even knew he was sick.

I lived in the shadow of my parishioner’s death for almost a year, often reverting to the sense of helplessness he felt when trying to protect his own life. Eventually, I decided to review the response from the state’s Covid-19 prison. What I have learned confirms the outrage and condemnation of watch groups, including the failure of the Covid-19 response given in New York by the Prison Policy Initiative last June.

In the spring of 2020, when my parishioner passed away and as New York City reported thousands of new cases on a daily basis statewide, it was already evident that the state was unprepared to respond to the crisis unfolding in its areas. prisons. In March of that year, Governor Andrew Cuomo proudly announced the state’s own line of hand sanitizers, “Conveniently Made by New York State.” He did not explain that the disinfectant was bottled in a state prison facility by inmates – at the same time that Covid-19 infections were skyrocketing in those places. The state actually did not mandate the availability of disinfectant in correctional facilities until the end of the month.

The close quarters of the Fishkill congregation were a powder keg for largely unmasked residents without adequate access to testing, but it wasn’t until mid-May – a week after my parishioner’s death – that the state announced that it had completed the distribution of masks at its facilities. Advocacy groups say there was no consistent access to masks even after that: Laurie Dick, who heads local advocacy group Beacon Prison Action, told me during a protest in the Outside the prison around Thanksgiving, people inside opened the windows and shouted that they needed masks. “I couldn’t believe that in November they were still struggling with masks,” she said.

After all this, the state has largely retained the most important measure to save lives: the vaccine. The Department of Health’s “phase one” vaccine eligibility list included residents from all state-run collective living settings – except prisons. In March, Justice Alison Tuitt of the Bronx State Supreme Court ordered New York to offer vaccines to all incarcerated people, adding that their exclusion from access was “unfair and unfair.”

Who can we hold responsible for this failure to adequately protect those incarcerated in New York State? I reached out to the Department of Corrections and Community Oversight (DOCCS), which runs prisons in New York City, to ask who was in charge of the state’s Covid-19 prison policy. He provided me with extensive information, including this written statement: “Since the onset of the Covid-19 health crisis, NYS DOCCS has worked around the clock with the governor’s office and several state agencies to ensure the protection of the imprisoned population. and our staff. It is true that after the first peak of infections, the DOCCS took measures to mitigate Covid-19, including the early release of nearly 4,000 incarcerated people.

But the language of that statement is unclear who ultimately takes the blows – DOCCS or Governor Cuomo. “If we don’t know who makes the decisions, we don’t know who to talk to,” said Stefen Short, a supervising lawyer with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, who helped advocate the case. vaccine against the condition.

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