The evening of March 25, more than 200 people in New York State and elsewhere got on a Zoom conference call sponsored by the group Release Aging People in Prison to hear advocates and experts—including RAPP’s director, Jose Saldana, a former New York prisoner himself—lay out a very race-against-the-clock campaign.
Its central demand is that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo use his broad powers to grant immediate clemency and release to up to 10,000 prisoners over the age of 50, as well as those with severe underlying illnesses, who are at risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, which has already hit the New York State prison system and which appears to spread rapidly in densely populated settings such as prisons.
“We’re facing a virus that is deadly to the most vulnerable of us, those who are aging and have underlying health conditions,” said Saldana, 66, who was released from the prison system in 2018 after 38 years and four parole-board denials. “The only solution here is decarceration ... or the likelihood is that they will die.”
The pressure campaign, trending on Twitter under the hashtags #FreeOurElders and with selfies of people holding signs that say “Cuomo, #LetThemGo,” has been building in recent days, with progressive hero Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez penning an open letter to both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio urging them to release elderly and vulnerable people in both the state and city prison systems.
“During a public health crisis that necessitates social distancing and good hygiene, the close quarters, overpopulation, and limited access to sanitary products at our prisons make them uniquely susceptible to the proliferation of COVID-19,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “We must aggressively reduce our incarcerated population in order to avoid a potentially deadly outbreak across our city and state’s prisons.”
Others calling for mass release include New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, who wrote, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has received high marks for his handling of the coronavirus. ... But there is at least one group of New Yorkers whom Cuomo hasn’t done much to protect: elderly prisoners. Without quick action, too many of them will die from COVID-19.”
Amid the coronavirus crisis, the movement to release aging and medically vulnerable prisoners has been growing both nationwide and globally, with hundreds of such prisoners at least temporarily released from systems everywhere from Los Angeles to Cleveland to Iran, which reportedly has released up to 85,000 inmates, some of them political prisoners.
As of March 26, it appeared that Cuomo, who is currently enjoying a moment of nationwide popularity for what is widely considered his smart and compassionate handling of the COVID-19 crisis in his state, had not volunteered a public statement about the elderly and vulnerable in the state prison system. A review of transcripts of his much-watched recent press conferences finds no mention of the issue except his reply of, “It’s something we’re looking at. Yes,” when a reporter at a March 23 press conference asked, according to an online transcript, “Are you [inaudible 00:35:11] for elderly New Yorkers in state prisons?”
Earlier in the month, Cuomo was criticized for using prisoners in the system to make New York State–branded hand sanitizer for outside communities while paying them less than $1 an hour and not allowing them to use the sanitizer themselves.
On the RAPP Zoom conference, it was pointed out that the New York State prison parole board could be appealed to, and that state lawmakers could also be pressured to pass legislation. But Carol Shapiro, a former parole board commissioner who joined the conference, said that the primary target of pressure should be Cuomo. Mass clemency, she said (including for many elderly prisoners who have been asking for such clemency for months or years now), “is a mechanism Cuomo can activate today to expedite this. Or this is going to be on his conscience. Somebody has to step up to the plate here and not worry about the consequences of what this looks like publicly.”
Many on the conference pointed out substantial data showing that rates of recidivism (going back to prison for new crimes) among older and elderly parolees were dramatically low. Laura Whitehorn, a RAPP organizer and former prisoner, said that the campaign had to be based on age and medical vulnerability, not on the level of crime prisoners had (often long-ago) committed.
“The racism of mass incarceration is epitomized by people basically serving life sentences, being permanently punished, even if their initial sentence was 10 to 25 years, because they’ve been denied parole by boards over and over again, supposedly because of the nature of their crimes,” she said. “The number of people over 50 in the New York system has doubled, even while the overall prison population has fallen by 30% in recent years due to minor release reforms that were limited to low-level, nonviolent offenders.”
“We saw,” she continued, “that people would be living their final years in prison. And that’s running right into the coronavirus crisis. Elders need to be released right now. Every single public health expert in the country has said that there is no way that prisons can protect incarcerated people [from this epidemic] or provide any good medical [care against it].”
Said Saldana, “If people have served 24 of their 25 years, then let them appear before the parole board now and release them. It makes no sense to leave vulnerable people in prison just to die. That’s not justice. That’s pure racism and revenge.”
Donna Robinson, RAPP’s Western New York regional organizer, whose daughter is serving 15 years to life in New York’s system, said, “There’s a system of perpetual punishment going on ... there’s a difference between a prison sentence and a death sentence. ... There are people in New York’s system in their 80s, close to 90, who can barely get from the bed to the wheelchair, and yet New York State continues to keep them confined.”
She said that, according to phone calls with her daughter, the prison she was in had just begun giving prisoners hand sanitizer and allowing them to put bleach in their water. “When I last visited her, there was no soap in either washroom, and one sanitizer dispenser way in the back of the visiting room,” she said. “You have guards coming in and out, bringing in germs, which get all over tables, vending machines, and microwave ovens.”
As of early evening March 26, Gov. Cuomo’s press office, which said that all press queries needed to be submitted by email, had not replied to a query from this reporter asking if the governor was talking about or planning to release elderly prisoners.
Meantime, Release Aging People in Prison is pushing hard in its campaign to get as many people as possible to pressure Cuomo—limited by the reality that, due to social distancing to prevent coronavirus spread, activism that might usually happen in Albany, in front of the state Capitol or the Governor’s mansion, is happening via calls, faxes, and social media. Activists even held a virtual press conference on Monday, March 30 to further pressure Gov. Cuomo to act quickly. (See below action steps from RAPP.)
Time is of the essence, activists on the Zoom conference stressed. “This is so urgent,” said Saldana. “All we need is a handful of infections in any one prison and it’s gonna spread like wildfire. Just like during the AIDS crisis, people are going to be healthy one day and dead the next.”
The below are action steps RAPP sent to Zoom conference participants:
Thank you so much for joining us for last night’s forum on COVID-19 and New York State prisons. We had nearly 250 people join us and felt the energy and strength of our collective. Here is a video recording of the forum.
Now is the time for us to take action. Here is what we’re asking you to do today and tomorrow in support of our urgent COVID-19 efforts.
READ AND CIRCULATE OUR COVID-19 DEMANDS: We, the Parole Preparation [Project], and our other community partners created this list of COVID-19 demands for people in New York State prisons. Please share these demands widely with your friends and networks. Your organization can sign on in support of the demands using this form.
SIGN THIS PETITION FOR #BailReform & #ClemencyNow: Please join us in calling on Governor Cuomo to decarcerate New York State prisons and jails by signing this petition, which calls on him to not roll back bail reform, grant clemencies to people in prison, and release people incarcerated on technical parole violations.
JOIN OUR SOCIAL MEDIA CAMPAIGN TOMORROW: Please join us and our partners in New York and California for a #ClemencyCoast2Coast social media action happening tomorrow, March 27th. Here is a social media toolkit to help you tweet and post graphics on Facebook, make calls to governors in New York and California, take selfies to promote our #LetThemGo message and more.
DONATE TO MUTUAL AID EFFORTS: In addition to supporting our work to #LetThemGo, our partners at the Parole Preparation Project have created an amazing, critical mutual aid fund to support currently incarcerated people’s everyday. If you are in a position to do so, please donate to this fund. Money will be used for incarcerated people’s commissary, to send packages, and to support loved ones of people in prison.
STAY CONNECTED: WEBSITES OF PARTICIPATING ORGANIZATIONS: We encourage you to keep in touch with the organizations that participated in last night’s forum by visiting their websites: RAPP, Parole Prep, NYCLU, VOCAL and WESPAC.
Thank you so much for taking these actions. Despite the difficult time, we need to keep pushing for #ClemencyNow and to #StopCOVIDinPrisons.