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Pleading for Clemency in a Pandemic

Petitions for early release reveal the contours of people’s lives before incarceration, conditions on the inside, and what might come after.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As the coronavirus rips through prisons and jails across the United States, much of the attention has been focused on Rikers Island, the New York City jail which, with an infection rate that reached 7.8 percent as of April 13, is now responsible for the single largest concentration of coronavirus cases in the world. But across New York, incarcerated people serving out sentences in state prisons face the same grave risks—and attorneys are racing to file emergency petitions for their release, appealing to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive power to grant clemency. They have exclusively shared these petitions with The New Republic (redacted to preserve privacy, as they include details of medical histories).

“As a group, these individuals are particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of Covid-19 or are close to the point at which they would otherwise be entitled to release,” David E. Loftis, attorney-in-charge of post-conviction litigation at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “Releasing these individuals from prison will drastically diminish the risk that they will be exposed to the coronavirus.”

The petitions contain little of the dry legal language that is often the hallmark of other court documents. In a handful of pages, attorneys attempt to tell the story of a life that doesn’t translate to their criminal records. In these documents, there are snapshots of lives that existed before incarceration, and what might exist after.

As part of their petitions, people in state prisons shared what little they can do to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus. One told his attorney, by phone, that “many people in his dorm are sick, but that unless their fever is 104 or higher, they are not isolated because of the lack of space.” Another said in her prison, “she has seen one civilian wearing a mask,” but “none of the corrections officers wear them, despite the increasing rates of infection among corrections staff.” As of April 13, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), 581 staff across the system have tested positive for Covid-19, along with 139 incarcerated people.

Some of the people Legal Aid hopes Governor Cuomo will grant clemency and early release to are due to be released within a few months—even weeks. There is a man at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence, scheduled for release on April 23—next week. It’s so little time, but the days matter. The virus spreads quickly. One prisoner has already died from coronavirus at Sing Sing. There are two men at Green Haven Correctional Facility who are eligible for release within months—one has a scheduled release date in June. At the time of their clemency petition, 18 correction officers at the prison had tested positive for Covid-19.

Others who have approaching release dates are very sick, and attorneys see no reason for them to suffer inside where they are at greater risk. There is a 63-year-old man who suffers from a chronic inflammatory lung disease, asthma, and high blood pressure, among other conditions, who has already been given a conditional release date of May 11. A 61-year-old woman imprisoned at Taconic Correctional Facility, who has Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and high blood pressure, is to be released August 22. She then plans to live with her father, her attorney wrote, where she will have her own bedroom and bathroom so she can self-quarantine post-release.

“This has nothing to do with me requesting clemency,” a 61-year-old man, suffering from a severe respiratory condition, wrote in a letter for the New York City Board of Corrections, “but I also want the Board to understand that I don’t want to waste the few years I could have if I take care of myself, doing the same things I did in the past.” The parole board has already approved him for release on July 17. He plans to live with his daughter, who was born after he was arrested, and who now has a daughter of her own.

Most of the petitioners describe the family waiting for them with a place to live. A 61-year-old man at Five Points Correctional Facility, with asthma, heart disease, and other conditions putting him at increased risk, plans to live in a home he co-owns with his siblings, including his sister, who is a minister. A man with a weakened immune system, who has served 10 years of a 13-year sentence at Franklin Correctional, has an uncle who offered to support him. He also plans to enter an apprenticeship program with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. A man who immigrated to the United States from Ecuador in 2004, who has been in prison since 2013, suffers from a medical condition which makes him prone to seizures and strokes, and he has been hospitalized twice in recent months as a result. If released, he plans to live with his wife and daughter in Queens.

While these petitioners wait for the governor to decide, one man told his lawyer there is no hand sanitizer, and no more soap than usual—he is unable to clean his cell every day because cleaning supplies are not provided. No one wears masks, he said, including those who prepare and serve food.

By design, people in prisons and jails cannot take the same precautions others can to avoid infection. “Even in a world where implementation was perfect, it would be impossible for a correctional facility to protect incarcerated people from the spread of Covid-19,” said Loftis at Legal Aid. “And DOCCS’ implementation has been far from perfect. Many people are still required to sleep in dormitory settings; they are denied reliable access to cleaning supplies; they must stand in crowded lines awaiting food; they have not consistently been provided with masks to wear and some have been sanctioned when they try to fashion their own. For the people we have identified in our clemency applications only immediate release will afford them the protection they desperately need.”

Each of these people and the others seeking clemency were incarcerated for different reasons. They come from different places, different backgrounds. But they have this in common: Their punishment—as one man’s attorney put it—“was never intended to be a death sentence.”