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Protest over COVID-19 outbreak at Elmira Correctional Facility

Jeff Murray
Elmira Star-Gazette

Emily Singletary's husband is behind bars at the Elmira Correctional Facility, and with a COVID-19 breakout rampaging through the prison, she's worried about his safety.

Singletary was among about 50 people who gathered in front of the maximum-security state prison Tuesday to appeal to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release inmates who are most vulnerable to the virus.

More than 500 inmates at the Elmira Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19, the worst outbreak so far in the state prison system.

In response, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision last week closed the prison to outside visitors.

But that's not enough, said Singletary, whose husband, Derek, is serving a 20-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter. Together, they launched Unchained, a Syracuse-based nonprofit prison reform organization.

"For now, he is safe. We don't know how long that will last," Singletary told the crowd gathered across the street from the prison.

"He has been facing retaliation because of his advocacy on this issue. They aren't getting masks when they ask for them. They need soap and hand sanitizer. This is a public health crisis."

Donna Robinson of Buffalo, an organizer for Release Aging People in Prison, rallies outside of the Elmira Correctional Facility on Tuesday. Protests were held simultaneously throughout New York calling for increased protections for incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. October 27, 2020.

The Elmira prison, with an inmate population of around 1,500, had 556 cases confirmed as of Monday, including 22 people who had recovered, a state corrections agency said. It had 21 tests for coronavirus pending at the time.

Cuomo's office said it has acted swiftly to address the outbreak, including the deployment of rapid COVID testing 

“Here are the actual facts: Once we became aware of this situation, we immediately deployed rapid testing for incarcerated individuals and staff, isolated incarcerated individuals who tested positive, quarantined those who were exposed and suspended visitation to these facilities," Cuomo senior advisor Rich Azzopardi said in a statement.

"A vast majority of these cases has been asymptomatic; DOCCS medical staff are closely monitoring the few who have shown symptoms."

The state is in the process of testing every one of the 36,000 inmates in New York prisons, a process expected to be finished by the end of November.

When visitation restarts, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision will require all visitors to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test from within the last 7 days.

Also, the state said has been expanding its early release program to limit COVID exposure, with the release of 3,052 inmates since the pandemic. Since January, about 8,000 people have been released, putting the state's total incarcerated population at its lowest level since 1986, state officials said.

"Every facet of the state’s response to this pandemic has been guided by facts, scientific data, and the guidance of public health experts, and these efforts are no different," Azzopardi said.

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The union representing correction officers is also closely monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks at the Elmira and Green correctional facilities and was an early advocate for suspending visitation.

"We will continue to monitor those two prisons as well as others throughout the state that are starting to see an uptick in the coronavirus again," said James Miller, spokesman for the New York State Correction Officers and Police Benevolent Association. 

"It is vitally important that DOCCS takes proactive measures to safeguard staff, their families, and the inmate population. This is a step in the right direction."

Tamika Graham of Staten Island speaks during the protest outside of the Elmira Correctional Facility on Tuesday. Protests were held simultaneously throughout New York calling for increased protections for incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. October 27, 2020.

Tuesday's demonstration in Elmira was one of four that were planned statewide.

Other gatherings were slated for the state Capitol in Albany, the governor's office in New York City, and state Sen. Todd Kaminsky's district office on Long Island.

Unchained was among several prison-reform organizations represented at Tuesday's protest.

Corrections officers outside of the Elmira Correctional Facility, where there is a COVID-19 outbreak of more than 500 cases. Four protests were held simultaneously throughout the state on Tuesday to increase protections for incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. October 27, 2020.

The goal isn't to open the doors and let all inmates free. 

It's to grant clemency where it makes the most sense, said Jerome Wright, of Buffalo, statewide organizer of Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement. 

"The governor and Legislature didn't do anything about it. We pleaded with them to release people who were vulnerable," Wright said. "COVID is a death sentence in New York."

The lethality of COVID-19 among some populations was a recurring theme among many of the signs held by protesters at Tuesday's demonstration.

"NY reinstates death penalty: COVID in prison" one sign stated. "COVID + prison equals death," another one read, while another sign declared: "Stop the death sentence. Release them."

Protesters rally at the Elmira Correctional Facility, where there is a COVID-19 outbreak of more than 500 cases. Four protests were held simultaneously throughout the state on Tuesday to increase protections for incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. October 27, 2020.

Protest organizers believe inmates who should be eligible for release include those over age 55, inmates who are within a few months of their release dates, and those who are back in prison for technical parole violations.

"The governor can grant clemency. They can pass bills. Stop solitary confinement," said Donna Robinson, of Buffalo, representing the group Release Aging People in Prison. "Most of all treat incarcerated human beings as they should be."

Taking those steps can relieve prison overcrowding and protect people who really shouldn't be incarcerated, inmate rights advocates said.

Protesters rally at the Elmira Correctional Facility, where there is a COVID-19 outbreak of more than 500 cases. Four protests were held simultaneously throughout the state on Tuesday to increase protections for incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. October 27, 2020.

"So many people don't deserve to be here. Maybe it was a simple violation of parole. Maybe they missed a few appointments and they sent them back," said Irene Aylward, of Binghamton.

"We don't want to let all the rapists and murderers go. But we want to get people help instead of throwing them in prison."

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