ALBANY — Citing the COVID-19 outbreak, criminal justice reform advocates are insisting the state stop returning parolees to state prison for “technical” violations of their release conditions and move elderly and sick inmates into alternative settings.
The push for a new approach to reducing density in both prisons and county jails comes after numerous staffers at Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County had to be isolated in recent days when two inmates, including convicted rapist and former movie producer Harvey Weinstein, tested positive for the coronavirus. In addition, more than three dozen inmates at Rikers Island, a New York City jail, have tested positive.
Norman Reimer, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said state officials should develop an immediate plan for reducing inmate density to protect police officers, court staffers, corrections officers and the inmates.
“It is frankly lamentable that nothing was in place before this happened,” he said of the virus outbreak that spread to New York early this month.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters that the state is considering stepping up its response to reducing the risk of the virus in prisons, but offered no specifics.
“It is something we are looking at, yes,” he said when asked if he would embrace the suggestion that elderly and sick inmates be moved out of prisons before their sentences have been completed.
Parolees are often returned to prison for such infractions as failing a drug test or getting charged with drunken driving.
The debate over addressing the prison health concerns in New York by lowering the inmate population came on the same day a New Jersey court ordered the release of jail inmates held for probation violations or convictions for minor crimes. The emergency edict could result in an estimated 1,000 prisoners being released in New Jersey, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In New York, the state prisons agency has curtailed visits to inmates and suspended the transport of prisoners from county jails to state facilities. It is now restricting the movement of inmates from one prison to another, a move advocated by Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, one of the groups involved in the coalition, said the focus on protecting the inmate population from the virus has become “a civil rights issue, a human rights issue and a humanitarian issue.”
New York prisons housed 43,881 inmates as of March 1.
Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said his members work in a risky environment because of the high density of inmates in an enclosed setting.
Powers said Weinstein, 68, was believed to have been infected by the virus before he was transported from Rikers Island to Wende. Weinstein is serving a 23-year sentence for sex crimes, and is also facing extradition to California, where he faces rape and sexual assault charges.