ALBANY — As critics called for more testing and the release of vulnerable inmates, New York prison officials defended their handling of the coronavirus crisis on Tuesday.
Department of Corrections and Community Supervision acting commissioner Anthony Annucci told lawmakers the agency took appropriate steps to stem the spread of COVID-19 among inmates and attempting to increase testing.
“Any death is one too many, but we are at least gratified that it could have been much worse,” Annucci said during a virtual hearing hosted by members of the state Senate.
A total of 17 inmates and five staff members have died from the virus since the pandemic began.
DOCCS has reported 773 positives after conducting more than 13,000 tests, primarily focusing on vulnerable prisoners or those exhibiting symptoms. More than 20,000 inmates have not been tested and there are no plans to roll out antibody testing that can tell if someone previously had coronavirus.
Annucci noted that the state’s overall prison population has declined more than 7,500 since the start of the year, including 2,000 prisoners who were freed because they were within three months of their scheduled release date.
Still, advocates criticized the department’s response to the pandemic, saying testing has been inadequate in prisons where cramped quarters could lead to outbreaks and the 5% infection rate is dangerously high.
“In almost every area of civic life, mass testing has been the rule – and the key to slowing COVID’s terrible progress through our state. There is one exception and, predictably and tragically, it leaves behind a group of citizens who, even before COVID, were in desperate need of quality, compassionate health care: incarcerated New Yorkers,” said Alexander Horwitz, the executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice.
Earlier in the day, advocates and relatives of some of those who died from coronavirus behind bars called on Gov. Cuomo and lawmakers to take action by granting clemency to elderly and immunocompromised people and anyone with less than a year left of their sentence.
They also called on the Legislature to pass measures granting parole to older inmates and scaling back the use of solitary confinement.
Susan Li, a member of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, who lost her father to COVID-19 while he was incarcerated asked elected officials to put themselves in her shoes.
“To our officials, I want any of them to imagine what it’s like to watch a parent or child die behind bars and to be deprived of updates of their loved one’s status and conditions in their last days, as I was," she said. "To face resistance every step of the way, while you’re just trying to know which hospital your dad is at.”
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