"Paradigm of Perpetual Punishment": Advocates Call On Cuomo To Grant Clemency As COVID Hits Prisons


(WXIR-Rochester) The moment many of New York’s decarceration advocates have been warning about is now officially here.

Prison administrators confirmed this week that one of the men incarcerated at Riker’s Island has tested positive for the coronavirus. The announcement came one day after a man who worked there died from the virus.

Activists and public health officials alike have been urging more aggressive preventive action for weeks, noting that conditions in New York State’s prisons and jails are ripe for an outbreak: people in close quarters, limited opportunity to wash hands, and insufficient medical treatment put incarcerated people, as well as corrections employees, at risk.

Most facilities, including Monroe County jail, have stopped allowing visitation.

But for Donna Robinson, the Western New York organizer for Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), that’s not enough.

"People who are elderly, those who have cancer, diabetes, respiratory ailments. Those are the ones who are going to be most susceptible to getting this coronavirus," Robinson says.

For years, Robinson's organization has been pushing lawmakers to pass legislation that would ensure a fair parole hearing for people over 55 who have served 15 years of their sentence.

But in light of the coronavirus crisis, RAPP has started calling for a more drastic and immediate intervention.

"What we're doing is to ask the Governor to grant clemency to a lot of these elderly people who are languishing behind bars, who are not a threat to society if they are released to come back to their community, to their family," Robinson says. "It's the humane thing to do."

While New York’s prison population has been steadily declining over the last decade, a larger and larger share of that population is aging or elderly. According to a 2017 report from the State Comptroller’s Office, roughly one in five people incarcerated by the state of New York is over 50.

Robinson acknowledges that if RAPP gets its wish, community support networks would need beefing up. But she says letting aging and other vulnerable people out of prison would free up a good deal of money already being spent on incarceration.

"We're talking about $100,000 a year to maintain an elderly person behind bars. We can put that money into the community" to support housing and re-entry programs, she says.

Donna Robinson, 3rd from L, with other RAPP Organizers

For Robinson, the issue is deeply personal. Her family has been the victim of violent crime, and several of her family members have been behind bars, including her daughter.

But it was last August, when she learned that Valerie Gaiter, the longest-serving woman in the history of New York’s prison system died of throat cancer after being misdiagnosed, that she decided to start going to Albany.

"When I would go and visit my daughter and see women my age and my mother's age behind bars, that broke me down," says Robinson.

"But when Ms. Valerie Gaiter passed away on August 13th while I was visiting my daughter? She was an icon. At Bedford Hills she mentored every young woman who came through those gates. [After] 41 years, she outlasted many guards. Even one of the superintendents came back to pay their respects," Robinson recalls. "That's when I got off the side of the bed crying, and I went to Albany. And I found out I have a voice, and it makes a difference."

To date, Governor Cuomo has not heeded calls to release incarcerated people at greatest risk of contracting the coronavrius.

Given the fears conservative lawmakers and law enforcement have been stoking in response to the state’s new bail reform law this year, the Governor may see the issue of mass clemency as too politicized to touch.

In response to New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio’s pledge to review the list of people in city custody for vulnerable individuals to release this week, Rochester’s State Senator Rich Funke wrote on Facebook Thursday, "Releasing hardened criminals to a society that currently has many vacant businesses would make them sitting ducks to potential looting and mayhem. Kids are home from school and in some cases outside at playgrounds and other gatherings spots that are magnets to predators. The elderly shut in at their homes would be sitting ducks to crime."

It's the perpetuation of an alarmist narrative that Donna Robinson and others, including many public health experts, reject.

"It's a paradigm of perpetual punishment," Robinson adds. "Yes, some people do need punishment for crimes that they commit. But when you start compounding punishment on top of punishment, then that becomes something else. To me that's an atrocity. We can't just let people sit behind bars and languish and die."


DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at wxirnews@gmail.com