Queens electeds tour prisons ravaged by COVID-19 pandemic

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State Senator Jessica Ramos (r.) has concerns about COVID-19 testing of prison inmates and employees following a recent tour. (Courtesy of Progressive Cities)

Three Queens lawmakers joined legislators from across the state on fact finding missions to upstate prisons, jails and ICE detention centers ravaged by COVID-19 and called for the swift passage of the Justice Roadmap, a package of bills that would decarcerate New York and curtail “death and torture” behind bars.

They also called for immediate access to COVID-19 vaccines for incarcerated New Yorkers.

“Not only did this public health crisis spotlight the inhumane practices at facilities, it has sped up the urgency to take meaningful steps to decarcerate our state,” state Senator Jessica Ramos said. “As we look to build a better New York for all, we must put forward legislation to address the harms of our criminal legal and immigration systems that have torn too many of our families apart and finally bring healing to Black and Brown communities who have been disproportionately impacted.”

The Justice Roadmap, a legislative platform endorsed by more than 200 organizations, includes measures to end prolonged solitary confinement, enact parole reform, end law enforcement collaboration with ICE, and legalize marijuana. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 5,500 New Yorkers incarcerated in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, a positivity rate of nearly 16 percent, and at least 32 have died.

“I witnessed alarming public health and human rights concerns, including poor heating issues, reduced access to educational and recreational opportunities, and a lack of mental health support for incarcerated people,” Assemblyman Khaleel Anderson said. “We must ensure that vaccines are distributed equitably to incarcerated members of our community, enact parole reform, end solitary confinement and ultimately we must decarcerate New York. The Justice Roadmap will move us towards this.”

Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, a co-sponsor of several of the bills included in the Justice Roadmap, was impacted after meeting with several incarcerated individuals.

“We met so many people who had families, who had been contributing members of society and they are locked away,” she said. “We went into the solitary confinement unit. We asked them to put us in a cell and close the door. I’m five-feet tall and could touch both sides of the walls. These stories are powerful. We must keep moving the agenda forward.”

Ramos was concerned that detainees only get tested if they are new to the facility or if they are sick. The staff do not get tested regularly for COVID-19 and only a portion of the staff members, including medical staff, have received the vaccine so far.

“I’m very concerned that they are not offering regular testing of their employees or their inmates,” Ramos said. “We shouldn’t wait until a tragedy transpires. Enough tragedies have already taken place. We’ve already lost New Yorkers under our custody. We are responsible for their lives and the best way we can redeem ourselves as a state is by passing the package of bills known as the Justice Roadmap so we can make sure this never happens again.”