There is a portion of the community whose struggles during the coronavirus pandemic remain hidden from view — incarcerated people.
On Sept. 22, Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST) gave testimony at a public hearing about the impact of COVID-19 in jails and prisons to the New York State (NYS) Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections and the Senate Standing Committee on Health. According to the NYS Senate website, the purpose of the hearing was to examine current responses to the pandemic in terms of the incarcerated population and to improve such responses for future public health crises.
More than 218,000 inmates and correctional officers have contracted COVID-19 across the country, with at least 1,265 of them dying, according to the New York Times.
Bill Martin, Bartle professor of sociology and a member of JUST, explained in an email how the testimony fits in with JUST’s larger mission.
“Our [COVID-19]-related testimony and work is part of a long discussion with state legislators as part of our effort to push back mass incarceration and mass policing in the local community,” Martin wrote.
JUST’s testimony focused on the conditions in New York’s upstate jails, specifically the Broome County Jail, which has had 11 inmate deaths since 2011. In early April, Broome County Executive Jason Garnar labeled the Broome County Jail as a COVID-19 hotspot, yet this designation was dropped by early May.
Five inmates came forward to the New York Post to discuss the poor conditions in the jail. An article published on April 17 showcased that prisoners in the Broome County Jail were forced to clean up after COVID-19 patients without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). JUST’s testimony detailed allegations of hygiene and visitor or legal facilitation issues within the Broome County Jail. JUST also asserted that there is a lack of clear data on the prevalence of the virus in the jail.
“In sum: the jail’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of secrecy and punishment,” the testimony said.
JUST ended their testimony by calling for regular testing in the jail, transparency in COVID-19 data, PPE for everyone and the release of inmates who are over 50, have underlying medical conditions or are serving a sentence of less than one year. They also called for an investigation into medical treatment of the inmates and legislation to create more community oversight of prisons.
Broome County Sheriff David Harder, who oversees the jail, declined to comment on the testimony, citing JUST’s validity.
“As usual, JUST information is 98 percent false and not worth responding to,” Harder wrote in an email.
The Broome County Sheriff’s Office previously announced there were no new cases in the Broome County Jail as of May 6. However, a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request by JUST revealed this to not be the case, according to Martin. Martin wrote that the FOIL request still left questions unanswered.
“The [Broome County Health Department] could not or would not meet the request for the numbers tested inside, staff and incarcerated alike,” Martin wrote. “The Sheriff [Harder] refuses FOIL requests and inquiries. Last week one person in the official quarantine section, which includes all new persons committed to the jail, told us that not a single person had been tested — absolutely remarkable.”
Martin felt like the testimony was well-received by activists and provided new information for others who heard or read it.
“JUST’s testimony on conditions in the Broome County jail was surprising for many who attended or read the media reports, confirming fears of COVID-19’s impact,” Martin wrote.
Ren Longo, an undeclared freshman, sees the mishandling of COVID-19 in jails as a systemic issue.
“The whole jail system needs reform because they’re only used to profit from, like a business, and not address the real problems of crime and reforming the individuals,” Longo said.
Amanda Loeffler, a junior majoring in accounting, feels the local government should not forget about those in the Broome County Jail when it comes to its pandemic response.
“I think that it’s important for Broome County to make sure that not only non-incarcerated residents stay safe from COVID-19 but also people who are incarcerated,” Loeffler wrote. “They have a responsibility to all people, which should include those in the county jail.”