Leading Advocacy Organizations Within New Yorkers United For Justice Pen Urgent Letter To Governor Cuomo Demanding Immediate Action Amidst COVID-19 Outbreak in State Jails and Prisons

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 12, 2020
Contact: Jessica Floyd | JFloyd@Skdknick.com |

LEADING ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS WITHIN NEW YORKERS UNITED FOR JUSTICE PEN URGENT LETTER TO GOVERNOR CUOMO DEMANDING IMMEDIATE ACTION AMIDST COVID-19 OUTBREAK IN STATE JAILS AND PRISONS

New York Continues to Trail Other States that have Taken Action to Reduce Prison and Jail Populations

Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Coalition for Public Safety, #cut50, FAMM, Hispanic Federation, Jewish Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, NAACP, NAACP New York State Conference, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, New York Urban League and REFORM Alliance Pen an Urgent Letter to the Governor and the Department of Corrections Demanding Prison Population Reduction, Increased Testing, and Greater Transparency on COVID Cases in State Corrections Facilities

NEW YORK – Amidst a worsening COVID-19 outbreak in state prisons, a dozen leading advocacy organizations within New Yorkers United for Justice have written an urgent letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to take immediate actions to save the lives of incarcerated individuals. Following the release of incoherent data and the low number of testing taking place in New York State jails and prisons, advocates are calling for more testing, better protection for detainees, and greater transparency in prison data.

The letter is being made public today.

Leading organizations signing on include Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Coalition for Public Safety, #cut50, FAMM, Hispanic Federation, Jewish Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, NAACP, NAACP New York State Conference, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, New York Urban League and REFORM Alliance.

As of May 7, only 1.4 percent of New York’s prison population has been tested for COVID-19. The overall state testing rate is more than three and a half times higher. Despite repeated warning and recommendations from health experts, international organizations, and advocates, New York is yet to develop or reveal a plan on how it plans to address COVID-19 cases amongst the incarcerated population.

“Governor Cuomo has completely neglected to address the devastating toll COVID-19 is having on the state’s incarcerated population, despite having exhibited exemplary leadership during this global pandemic for the state’s general population,” said Khalil A. Cumberbatch, Chief Strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice (NYUJ). “Anything short of a plan that drastically reduces our prison population and providing adequate testing for the incarcerated is an oversight our state will eventually regret. We need to act now, and fast if we are going to win the fight against a disease that continues to decimated the most vulnerable members of our society.”

“Based on the limited data available, the infection rate in New York’s prisons could be nearly six times the recommended maximum by the World Health Organization,” said Molly Gill, Vice President of Policy for FAMM. “Not testing people in prison is asking to ignore this problem and hoping it goes away — and we all know that’s not going to solve this. New York’s prisons need to be safe places, and testing would be a big stride toward improved safety.”

Full letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci here:

May 8, 2020

Governor Andrew Cuomo

Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci
New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

Dear Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Annucci:

Before the coronavirus was introduced into New York prisons, hundreds of public health experts recommended targeted release of incarcerated people as an essential tool to mitigate inevitable illnesses and deaths in prisons. States around the country have successfully incorporated that expert advice into their larger COVID-19 response. Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Coalition for Public Safety, #cut50, FAMM, Hispanic Federation, Jewish Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, NAACP, NAACP New York State Conference, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, New York Urban League and REFORM Alliance believe any response to COVID-19 that does not include release of vulnerable people from prison is shortsighted and incomplete, and we renew our call for safe decarceration as more incarcerated people and corrections professionals are infected with COVID-19 by the day.

With or without release, however, the state is obligated to keep the people in its care safe. We appreciate what the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) has done so far in that regard. Keeping incarcerated people and corrections professionals safe requires, at a minimum, testing that accurately reflects the spread of the virus inside prisons and transparency about who is infected and where outbreaks are occurring.

DOCCS data suggest that testing rates in New York’s prisons are too low and need to be increased. As of May 7, a mere 1.4 percent of the prison population has been tested for COVID-19.1 The overall state testing rate is nearly four times higher.2 Testing data for staff is currently unavailable, but more than 1,100 staff have confirmed cases of COVID-19.3 Per the World Health Organization (WHO), a “positive rate” (i.e., positive tests as a percentage of overall tests) above 10 percent implies a significant number of infected but untested people. Based on the limited data available, DOCCS’s positive rate for incarcerated people is at least 66 percent. A positive rate more than six times WHO’s recommended maximum means DOCCS is not testing sufficiently to capture the extent of the spread of the virus inside prisons. This puts the lives and health of incarcerated people, corrections professionals, and prison vendors at unnecessary risk, and hinders efforts to perform contact tracing and quarantine those who could infect others throughout the communities in which they live and work. New York is lagging far behind states such as Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Michigan in testing its prison population. As the epicenter of this global pandemic, New York should be leading the nation on in-prison testing. We encourage you to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the positive rate for DOCCS staff and incarcerated people is reduced to 10 percent or lower, in accordance with WHO standards.

We appreciate DOCCS’s collection and reporting of relevant testing and infection data for incarcerated people and urge DOCCS to increase its transparency by publishing staff testing rates and results at each facility on its website. Many other states and the federal government are reporting data on the number, location, and results of staff tests for their prison systems, without violating privacy laws. Such reporting helps stifle rumors and informs the public, families of staff and incarcerated people, and lawmakers of where resources are needed. This data is also essential to ensure that staffing levels remain sufficient to keep people in and outside of prisons safe.

We understand that New York has limited testing capacity and is working to expand testing. We ask that DOCCS have priority access to obtain tests, test as many incarcerated people and staff as it can and be transparent with that data. The state simply cannot respond effectively to this pandemic without knowing who has been infected inside its prisons.

Sincerely,

Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law
Coalition for Public Safety
#cut50
FAMM
Hispanic Federation
Jewish Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform
NAACP
NAACP New York State Conference
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
New York Urban League
REFORM Alliance

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About New Yorker United for Justice (NYUJ):
New Yorkers United for Justice is a statewide coalition comprised of local and national non-profit organizations committed to supporting a movement that will bring much-needed criminal justice reform to New York State and ensure that policies promote safety and fairness. NYUJ aims for legislative urgency to fix a broken criminal justice system that punishes the poor and communities of color, tears families apart, and makes New Yorkers less safe. NYUJ believes that a system that ensures equal access to justice for anyone accused in New York State, regardless of age, race, ethnicity or social economic status, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or religion, must be the standard.