New York State is getting a lot of good press lately. Envious eyes across the country are turning in our direction and people in other states are openly wishing that they too had a President Cuomo. Maybe a strong government and high taxes are not so bad, if they can produce swift and coordinated results, like miraculously mass-produced hand sanitizer. But irony of ironies (there goes that anvil again), New York Clean is pretty dirty.
“We are problem solvers, state of New York, Empire State, progressive capital of the nation,” Cuomo said during a press conference, before opening a navy curtain and literally unveiling jugs of the “NYS Clean”-branded sanitizer, “made conveniently by the state of New York.” But according to workers at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York where the hand sanitizer is being “made,” as well as a spokesperson for the prison system, they are doing nothing more than taking existing hand sanitizer and rebottling it into packaging labeled “NYS Clean.”
This isn’t a freshly breaking story, and because events (and the virus) are moving so quickly, people outside of the state have moved on past their initial surprise that our state, allegedly the bluest diamond in the crown of liberalism, routinely uses (or abuses) prison labor and that those prisoners are freakishly required to buy their own hand sanitizer with the pennies that they earn. Or don’t get any at all.
Every day, says Donna Robinson, a bucket of bleachy water is delivered to a ward in Bedford Hills to be used by the sixty women housed there, her own daughter among them. That’s the extent of the supplies they receive to keep their area sanitized from COVID-19… “It’s batshit upside down crazy,” Robinson told hundreds of people during an online forum that RAPP conducted on March 25 to sound the alarm and organize to activate New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s clemency powers to “let them go.” “Here in western New York, when this scourge runs, they’re going to isolate them, put them in solitary,” Robinson said. “If there are deaths in droves, they’re going to have a Portable Mortality Unit; they’re not going to even send them to the hospital.” She added, “These are not garments to be thrown out. These are not garbage. They are human beings.”
And nobody cares about prisoners anyway, except their moms.
Laura Drum talks to her son every day on the phone. Recently, she’s had a simple message for him: “Take one day at a time and try your best [to] stay away from people. The best thing to do is isolate yourself.” But isolating yourself in a medium security prison is tough to do. Franklin Correctional Facility has more than a 1,100 inmates, many of whom sleep in rooms that can house up to 60 inmates each. Social distancing is nearly impossible. Drum is really worried about her son. Drum is 71 years old and has just been diagnosed with cancer. “I don’t want to die before he comes home,” she adds, beginning to cry. Her son’s parole hearing is set for next year.
It’s even really easy for liberal actual New Yorkers to skip past the equally dirty flip side of the reality of our prison system – our most despised essential workers, the prison guards. When not ignorable, they’re highly mockable, seen as uneducated rural hicks, probably all Trump supporters, live in decaying nothing-towns, and are likely personally morally vicious. They are everything that is bad and unredeemable.
Even if your personal view of prisoners and prison guards is the complete opposite of what I’ve just described, the coronavirus doesn’t give a shit. They’re all just new bodies to infect.
Andrew Hastings, a corrections officer at FCI Ray Brook, has been on a ventilator at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh since Wednesday. “He’s not doing great,” his sister-in-law Lisa Jimenez said. She said Hastings’ family is going through a very difficult time and that she is unhappy with the way the prison is being run. “They’re upset. He wasn’t considered an essential worker but a dispensable worker,” Jimenez said.
FCI Ray Brook is a federal facility and has chosen to deal with the situation with a lockdown. New York’s prison administrators have seemed paralyzed, only this week allowing corrections officers to wear masks on duty.
The potential for a horrific human rights catastrophe, hand in hand with the final destruction of some rural communities forced to be dependent on the prison system, cannot be understated. It’s the very worst manifestation of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship between all dimensions of “the New York family” — urban and rural, upstate and downstate, rich and poor — where do you even begin to untie this rat-king?
Calls for clemency for the increasingly elderly New York prison population was already a serious issue before the pandemic happened, and the issue will only be more in the spotlight as everyone moves forward. Will the twin problem of destitute rural communities trapped in the prison cycle also be addressed? As the virus is no respecter of persons, the leaders of New York have to be the same as they look toward rebuilding. Release all prisoners.