Release inmates to prevent COVID-19 outbreak

To the editor:

We should all be very concerned that the governor and Department of Corrections and Community Supervision are making the wrong choice in ignoring the reasoned call to release people from state prisons, especially the elderly and less healthy adults, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As early as three months ago, many members of the New York State Legislature wrote to urge the governor and DOCCS to establish a mechanism to protect the lives of the imprisoned population by releasing those who are vulnerable and who would pose little risk to public safety. The risks created by transferring vulnerable older people to one facility are real. The CDC reports that 9 out of 10 top COVID-19 clusters in the country are in prisons. The reason is simple, according to Dr. Robert Greifinger, DOCCS former medical director: “Prisons are incubators of disease transmitted through the air, such as COVID-19.”

As Dr. Greifinger stated in a letter to Gov. Cuomo, DOCCS Commissioner Annucci and Parole Chair Stanford, DOCCS is not equipped to handle a serious outbreak of the coronavirus. He knows DOCCS’ history and capabilities. DOCCS struggled for many years and compromised the health and safety of people incarcerated, as well as staff, when it was unable to control tuberculosis outbreaks in its double-bunked medium-security prison dorms.

Why, then, with the warnings and history as a guide, would the governor and DOCCS chose to establish the equivalent of a nursing home for elderly, incarcerated people at the Adirondack Correctional Facility? Why send vulnerable elders there from other prisons where COVID-19 was present without testing them first or even testing them immediately upon arrival? Did DOCCS forget that the first hot spot in Essex County was across the street at the federal facility?

Adirondack already has at least one case of COVID-19. Without serious action to release people, what’s occurred at San Quentin prison in California over the past month could be what’s to come in New York. The facility went from zero diagnosed cases to 500 within three weeks. This followed the transfer of vulnerable people from other prisons where COVID-19 was present. San Quentin is now No. 3 on the USA hot spot list with 1,625 positive diagnoses. Communities of color in prisons in California, New York and across the country have been the hardest hit by the virus.

What makes most sense is for the governor and DOCCS to evaluate all incarcerated people identified as elderly and less healthy adults and release as many as possible. Most experienced corrections experts will tell you that the people at Adirondack, aged 55 and over, most of whom have already served over 15 years, are the least likely to reoffend. Public safety will not be compromised by their release. In fact, their home communities will likely be enhanced by their return, where they can join their families and neighbors, employing their experience and learned insights, in working on the important issues facing all of us.

Thomas Terrizzi

Law Office of Thomas Terrizzi



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