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Prison’s 96 new inmates being tested

Advocacy groups call for release of elderly prisoners; so does one’s sister

Edward MacKenzie, right, with his mother Rosemary, is seen in their last photo together. MacKenzie, now 64, is currently serving a prison sentence in Adirondack Correctional. His sister Darlene says he is a “changed man” and said he should be released due to health concerns caused by the coronavirus. (Photo provided)

RAY BROOK — There are now 96 inmates, age 55 and up, at Adirondack Correctional Facility. They have been transferred from other state prisons over the past month as the one here transitions from being an adolescent offender facility to a medium-security facility for older inmates.

While 75 of those inmates wait for results of COVID-19 tests that were conducted after their transfers, prison reform advocacy organizations, local and statewide, are calling for them to be granted clemency for early release.

“If just one COVID case gets into Adirondack, it could cause really serious harm,” said David George, associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign.

Several organizations — including RAPP, John Brown Lives and Wake the North Country — plan to stage a protest down the road from the state prison Monday at 5:30 p.m.

Activists with these organizations say they have said they are concerned about a nursing-home-style outbreak of the virus in the prison. They say releasing elderly inmates should be a “no-brainer.”

Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook is seen from Scarface Mountain in June 2013. The buildings were originally built around 1904 as a state hospital for tuberculosis patients. (Provided photo — Marc Wanner, Historic Saranac Lake)

The prison guards’ union feels differently. John Roberts, the Northern Region vice president for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said neither he nor NYSCOPBA supports commuting sentences or early releases.

“People are sentenced to the amount of time they are sentenced to by the courts,” Roberts said. “I personally believe that they should meet those requirements before they’re released.”

For COVID-19 precaution, Roberts said inmates have been isolated into the groups in which they were transferred to the facility.

Darlene MacKenzie, of Maryland, says her older brother Edward, 64, was transferred from Fishkill Correctional to Adirondack in the first group of inmates. Fishkill has seen one of the highest rates of infection of New York state prisons, with five inmates dead from complications of the coronavirus and 83 infected.

She said he was denied parole recently, which “shocked” her. She said Edward is not the same man he was when he arrived in prison in 1994.

“My brother, he’s learned. Trust me, he’s learned,” Darlene said. “He took his time, and he utilized it.”

George said Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been hesitant to grant inmates clemency during the coronavirus pandemic, even as governors in other states, of both major political parties, have done so.

George said this request sounds bold but is driven by data on recidivism rates and health concerns.

“In most other parts of the world, this would be a no-brainer,” he said.

Martha Swan, director of the Westport-based John Brown Lives, said she believes the danger in elderly prisons is on par with the danger in nursing homes, which in New York have been outbreak centers for the virus.

“This is a basic question about our humanity,” Swan said. “This is a time for us to exercise compassion.”

She said the elderly inmates “pose no threat to society,” as data shows elderly rates of recidivism — or recommitting crimes — is low.

Wake the North Country Director Jane Haugh said she hopes it does not take a virus outbreak at a prison for elderly inmates to be given parole.

“The idea that they haven’t sent these people home is ludicrous,” Haugh said.

George said the governor has granted a handful of clemency releases in the past weeks. In a letter to the governor, RAPP and 79 other organizations requested that he use his clemency power to release everyone at Adirondack Correctional, or to commute their sentences to allow them to appear before the Parole Board.

“Isolating a large number of older and sick people in a congregate prison setting is the exact opposite approach that public health experts and medical professionals have been advising incarceration systems to embrace,” the letter says.

It also asks state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to pass two bills.

One bill would establish elder parole, giving every inmate over 55 years old who has served over 15 years in prison the chance to appear before the Parole Board. Going before the board is not a guarantee to be released.

The other bill is the Fair and Timely Parole Act, which would change the standard for the parole release process for everyone, focusing more on the individual’s rehabilitation than the crimes they are convicted of.

Stats on the prison

The transition from adolescent facility to elderly facility began in early June. The state plans to house around 128 older inmates there eventually.

This is significantly more than the younger population that was housed there before, which hovered around a dozen or so for the two years of that program’s operation. Staffing didn’t change when Adiondack Correctional went from up to 400 adult inmates to the dozen teens — there are around 100 staff members at the prison — and it isn’t changing with the latest transition, either. Roberts said corrections officers are glad to have more work at the facility. He said DOCCS may transfer in more employees to meet all the new work.

As of July 1, there were 75 COVID-19 test results pending at the facility.

George said RAPP has collected demographics data on the first 52 inmates who were transferred to the facility.

According to the data sheet, 25 are 60 to 65 years old, 20 are 65 to 70, and seven are over 70.

Twenty inmates have served under 10 years already, four have served 10 to 15 years, 15 have served 15 to 20 years, six have served 20 to 25 years, and three have served 30 years.

Twenty-eight of these men — around 50% — would be eligible for elder parole, which would make parole eligibility available for inmates age 55 and up who have served 15 or more years.

“I pray … that my brother will come home”

Edward MacKenzie is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for kidnapping, drug possession, robbery and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. He was up for parole recently, but his sister Darlene said she was “heartbroken” when it was denied. She worries about his health during the pandemic, as he has emphysema, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and stage 4 cirrhosis of the liver, which make him vulnerable to the virus.

“I pray on a daily basis that my brother will come home,” Darlene said. “I don’t want to lose my brother in prison.”

She said she has doubts he is safe and said he tells her morale is terrible in prison.

Darlene said a sore throat and loss of taste led him to believe he may have had virus while he was still at Fishkill, but multiple medical slips went unanswered. The symptoms may have also been from blood pressure medicine. She said she was glad the inmates are being testing for COVID-19 now.

“I’m not sure if it was because of the news media or not,” MacKenzie said.

Still, she said, they do not have masks, and Edward has told her that as more inmates are moved in, social distancing and other safety measures have been harder to implement.

Darlene said Edward’s parole decision was made based on his criminal history and not on who he is today.

She said Edward has become trusted by inmates and corrections officers alike in prison, and that he has spent time learning trades in electrical work, law and woodworking.

“He’s very into helping other people. I love my brother so much. He’s a changed man,” Darlene said.

“My brother is so compassionate now,” she added. “He says, ‘Learn from my mistakes.’ He has patience today.”

Darlene said in her free time she does some advocacy for the people Edward knows in prison, and he keeps her updated on inmates who need help.

She said she is currently working to get help for an 80-year-old man with AIDS at Adirondack Correctional, who she said is not receiving the same medical assistance he did at Fishkill.

Darlene said Edward has a job and family waiting for him if he gets out. As his youngest sister, she said, “I look up to him today.”

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