When presidents are this bad, it makes just about anyone look good. That is why we shouldn’t sanctify Andrew Cuomo right now. Juxtaposed next to Trump — who recklessly ignored warnings about the pandemic and appears ready now to sacrifice Americans to it for the sake of Wall Street — the governor of New York is earning plaudits from left and right alike for his ability, thus far, to tackle this crisis. He deserves many of them.
However, even as the president finds new ways to fail each day, we should stop gushing over another elected official who looks capable by comparison. Cuomo’s press conferences have been sharp, honest and blunt. But New York State is now the domestic epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, with around seven percent of the world’s reported cases of COVID-19. He’s been rigorously working to increase testing and secure protective gear for the workers on the front lines, but one thing Cuomo needs to be held accountable for is how he handles the most at-risk people during the pandemic. That includes the approximately 43,000 incarcerated in New York state prisons and the tens of thousands of people who are employed there. Once the coronavirus enters a prison, its spread is rapid, and inevitable. For this reason, at least 16 states, including New Jersey, have already released inmates. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that the city will release about 300 people who are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. So why hasn’t Cuomo taken action?
The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which did not respond to a request for comment, confirmed on Sunday that three of its own personnel have contracted COVID-19 and that two people incarcerated at Wende Correctional Facility — including convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein — have also tested positive. The New York City Board of Corrections also revealed that 38 people in the city’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, including at the city’s infamous Rikers Island prison. In response, the board’s interim chairwoman, Jacqueline Sherman, echoed the pleas of clergy and physicians alike, recommending that New York City’s criminal justice leaders “rapidly decrease the jail population,” prioritizing those who are at a higher risk for infection. “Fewer people in the jails will save lives and minimize transmission among people in custody as well as staff,” she wrote.
Currently at Rikers, notorious for its prisoner abuse, conditions are reportedly so unsafe that 45 incarcerated people in two of its dorms began a strike over the weekend, refusing to leave for work duties or meals. They did so in protest of, among other things, the crowded living conditions that make so-called “social distancing” impossible. That incarcerated people would require such a drastic demonstration only puts an even harsher light on elected officials, including from Cuomo, who have made it clear which New Yorkers, thus far, have been fit to save.
“Incarcerated people are largely black, brown, and poor people — the people that are always left behind and seen as discardable,” says organizer Rena Karefa-Johnson, the New York criminal justice director for FWD.us. “I think that the governor should really be prioritizing the safety of all New Yorkers. And that should include New Yorkers who are incarcerated.”
Dr. Yusef Salaam, who was one of the five boys who were later exonerated for the 1989 Central Park jogger case well after serving nearly seven years in prison, tells Rolling Stone that the pandemic is yet another hindrance to the rehabilitation of those who are incarcerated. “People went to a place to pay their debt, and then they will return. We have a whole population of people who are not invited to participate in society,” says Salaam, who now works with the Innocence Project. “What we’re looking at is making sure that the people get out at least get the opportunity to be productive again in society. That people get the opportunity to vote again. People get the opportunity to participate as full human beings.”
Yet during this pandemic, the only time that Cuomo has truly spotlighted incarcerated people as part of his efforts to mitigate the coronavirus crisis was when he used their poorly paid labor to make hand sanitizer. He even praised the scent of the product at a February press conference as akin to a “floral bouquet.” The entire spectacle, with the bottles stacked behind the proud salesman and governor, was a microcosm of the curious insensitivity that Cuomo has shown incarcerated people even as he garners valentines from the press for the things he is doing well.
Brooklyn public defender Scott Hechinger, who advocates for prisoner rights, says that not enough is being done on the state or local level to save lives amid this pandemic. “[New York] is considered a progressive state,” he says, “so you would expect that our leaders would be responding to this crisis with speed, with passion, and concern bordering on panic, to ensure that as few people are coming into the system as possible and as many people who are already in the system are being released safely. And the opposite has actually happened.”
The state’s correctional department addressed the pandemic earlier this month, closing its prisons to visitors outside of legal counsel and encouraging incarcerated people to wash their hands more often. Bleach has been distributed to prisoners in several facilities. However, experts have been clear: the best way to lessen the risk of prison outbreaks is to reduce the number of incarcerated people, particularly those who are elderly.
What makes the governor’s neglect even stranger is that he has a record of shrinking the state’s prison system since he assumed office in 2011. According to Cuomo’s communications office, the state has eliminated more than 6,650 prison beds and closed 17 facilities to account for a steeply declining population over the last 20 years. So why doesn’t he act now?
Things may get even worse — Cuomo is actually considering a measure that would keep more people in jail. Bail reform was part of the criminal justice reform legislation that Cuomo signed into law last year. As of New Year’s Day, New York State has banned bail altogether for most people charged with misdemeanor and nonviolent offenses. But the governor and the State Legislature face an April 1st deadline for a state budget and Cuomo said in late February that he wouldn’t sign off on it without adjustments to the current bail reform law. Cuomo and state Senate Democrats, under pressure from law enforcement, have already signaled that they want to grant judges more discretion over whether to hold certain defendants in jail who are charged with hate crimes, domestic violence offenses, and anything that results in a death.
All of those crimes are abhorrent, and the proposal seems sensible on its face. “I proposed a different bill than the bill that was actually passed at the end of the day, and my bill goes further,” Cuomo said two weeks ago. That may be true. But he is painting this forthcoming adjustment to the bail reform law as a result of “studying the consequences of that change” that went into effect fewer than four months ago. With an ongoing pandemic and the need to decrease the prison population to find solutions to keep everyone safe inside prisons, could there be other, less carceral solutions that stop the facilities from becoming Petri dishes of disease?
The governor’s office tells Rolling Stone that none of the changes that would possibly add to the prison population would take effect until the coronavirus pandemic had subsided. But what about the next pandemic? New York and every other state, quite obviously, need to get ready for it.
Karefa-Johnson says that her organization, FWD.us, is meeting with elected officials, urging them to stop any rollback of the bail reform measure, which has already cut down the jail population significantly. Hechinger, arguing that “public defenders are really the first responders right now in this crisis,” says that he and his colleagues at Brooklyn Defender Services are working on individual cases to try to get people released. But Cuomo could save them all a lot of work by freeing people to stop a potential outbreak.
This doesn’t mitigate the danger those incarcerated people might face on the outside, where coronavirus infections are multiplying in New York at a disturbing pace. But it would show that the governor, who is being almost universally praised for being the Adult in the Room when the nation so sorely needs one, is also someone with the full courage of his convictions.
“My mother is not expendable. And your mother is not expendable,” Cuomo said on Tuesday during his daily presser. “And our brothers and sisters are not expendable. We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. We’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.” He also tweeted this:
However, it isn’t enough for Cuomo to just sound like the good guy, or line up next to Trump and look good by comparison. No, he can’t control what Trump does to New York state, evidently demoting it to pariah status during this pandemic until presidential ass is sufficiently kissed. But it is impossible to stomach Cuomo’s moralistic declarations about saving “every life we can” when he does nothing to help people in prisons, all while revisions to bail reform stand to put more people inside.
Cuomo’s inaction is a de facto judgment on tens of thousands of lives. Some may argue that he’s doing the best he can; just look at the president! But he isn’t. It is because of Trump that we need more than the mere performance of competence. Since we have a leader who doesn’t value every American life in this crisis, others like Cuomo need to do so — and not just tell us they are.
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