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3,000 have been released from prison due to pandemic

ALBANY — The Cuomo administration has released nearly 800 parole violators and more than 2,200 felons convicted of nonviolent crimes from state prisons as part of an effort to lower the inmate population amid the pandemic.

In response to a data request from CNHI, Tom Mailey, spokesman for the state Department of Correctional Services and Community Supervision, said the total inmate population in New York has dropped by some 8,000 individuals since January, putting the current prison population at 36,076.

That is the lowest inmate total since 1986, when the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, father of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was in his first of three terms in Albany.

50% drop

The current population reflects a drop of more than 50% since the prisons hit their highest inmate count — 72,773 in 1999.

Those released early from their sentences include 2,254 individuals who were within 90 days of their scheduled release and had been sentenced for nonviolent crimes that were not classified as sexual assaults.

State officials have been mapping plans to close at least two prisons this year. But so far the locations of the facilities being considered for closure haven’t been shared with the public.

The inmates let out of prison early include 12 women who were pregnant or had recently given birth and had convictions for nonviolent crimes that were not of a sexual nature. Those women were within 180 days of their approved release dates when they were sent home, according to Mailey.

“Especially vulnerable”

Prison reform groups in New York have been clamoring for Cuomo to use his powers of clemency to release the inmates who are most vulnerable to COVID-19: those who are in their 50s and older or have illnesses and are in the last year of their stretch behind bars.

In a conference call with reporters, Cuomo said DOCCS is evaluating the possibility of transferring “especially vulnerable” inmates from Elmira state prison, where there is a large outbreak of COVID-19 infections among the incarcerated population.

Virus strategy

State data posted Wednesday put the number of Elmira inmates who have tested positive for the virus at 589.

Michael Powers, president of the New York Corrections Officers Police Benevolent Association, said the union opposes any plan to transfer inmates from prisons dealing with an outbreak to ones not experiencing a cluster of infections.

David George, an organizer with Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said the New York prisons hold more than 22,000 inmates who are “vulnerable” could be eligible for parole release if Cuomo takes action on their behalf.

George said transferring inmates from one prison to another as a virus-defense strategy has backfired in other states and argued more aggressive measures are needed to decrease the overall population of inmates.

“Now is the time to stop playing politics and start saving lives,” he said.

A total of 18 New York inmates have died from COVID-19 infections since March. Five prison system staffers as well as four parolees have died from the virus, according to DOCCS.

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