Andrew Cuomo, Stop a Coronavirus Disaster: Release People From Prison - Op-Ed Co-Written by Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

Monday, March 30, 2020

Andrew Cuomo, Stop a Coronavirus Disaster: Release People From Prison - Op-Ed Co-Written by Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been an exemplar of leadership in this time of crisis, someone to whom other state and local officials are looking for guidance. On Friday, the governor took the crucial step of ordering the release of 1,100 people from New York’s jails and prisons. But he must do more. If we don’t act fast, we jeopardize the lives of many. Worse yet, we risk creating a uniquely deadly incubator for the virus.

America incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth — some 2.3 million people, nearly 80,000 of whom are locked up in various New York correctional facilities for young people and adults. No other country in the world faces the kind of threat gathering in our jails and prisons.

Given the conditions in which incarcerated people live — limited access to soap and water; shared bathrooms, mess halls and living quarters — this population is especially vulnerable to the virus, and largely unable to prevent its spread. In New York, we’ve already begun to see the effects. Dozens of residents and correctional staff members have tested positive. More will follow.

The consequences will be devastating, for people both inside and outside prison walls. When officers and staff members who work in prisons get infected, they will bring the virus home to their families. As happened in Italy, mounting tensions inside prisons, where anxious residents no longer have access to family visits or the proper supplies to protect themselves, create security risks that will be compounded by short staffing when correctional officers fall sick.

And because of inadequate medical care in most of these facilities, people in prison who become infected will die unnecessarily, while others will be transferred to local hospitals in rural communities upstate, where most of New York’s prisons are. These hospitals are woefully unprepared for the influx of patients, adding to growing strain on our state’s health care system. Dr. Ross MacDonald, the chief physician for the Rikers Island jail complex, was not being hyperbolic when he wrote on Twitter recently: “A storm is coming.”

We have little time to curb the spread of the virus within our state’s jails and prisons, and, by extension, across our state. This is not only an issue about the health of people in prisons, but also a public health crisis that threatens to become a humanitarian disaster.

For this reason, we and a number of public health experts call on Mr. Cuomo to release as many people as possible from New York’s correctional facilities, and to ensure they have the medical and re-entry help they need when they return home.

Here are several actions Mr. Cuomo must take, in addition to ending money bail for most people charged with crimes:

First, the governor should grant compassionate release to elderly inmates, as well as those with health conditions that put them at higher risk, including people with chronic and co-morbid conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and those who are pregnant or have immune deficiencies. We know that older incarcerated people are both more vulnerable to the disease and present the lowest risk of reoffending...

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