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“Leaving Us in Here to Die”: Prisoners Plea for Release, Protection Amid Skyrocketing Infections

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U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued an emergency order Friday calling for the release of vulnerable federal prisoners into home confinement amid the coronavirus crisis. This news comes as at least 16 states have also released prisoners. We look at the treatment of incarcerated people in New York state, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to grant anyone freedom despite at least 24 confirmed cases among state prisoners. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he’ll release about 300 people from Rikers Island and other city jails, but advocates are calling for far more to be freed. We speak to José Díaz, a New York University graduate student who was just released from Rikers on Saturday morning. We also speak with Jose Saldana, director of the group Release Aging People in Prison.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to look at the coronavirus outbreak in prisons and jails, where the number of infections is just exploding in the last weeks. On Friday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued an emergency order calling for the release of vulnerable federal prisoners into home confinement, with priority given to those in the hardest-hit federal prisons like FCI Elkton in Ohio, where three people died from coronavirus in the past week and at least 20 more have been hospitalized. On Friday, a prisoner there named Aaron DeShawn Campbell made a desperate plea for help in a video he filmed on a cellphone and posted on Facebook Live.

AARON DESHAWN CAMPBELL: [bleep] It was all good like a couple days ago, right? So, all of a sudden, out of the blue, [bleep] everybody just [bleep] dying and getting sick and [bleep] like this, [bleep] serious as [bleep]. Like, they’re literally leaving us in here to die.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as prisoners in Alabama told ABC News the state prisons there are, quote, “fixin’ to be a mass grave site.” In Chicago’s Cook County Jail, at least 234 prisoners have tested positive for the virus. At least 16 states have already released prisoners since the coronavirus outbreak.

Here in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, at least 24 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among state prisoners, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to grant anyone freedom. More than 150 specialists have signed a letter to Cuomo calling on him to act quickly to prevent more people from getting sick, by granting emergency clemencies to older, sick, pregnant or immunocompromised prisoners.

Meanwhile, a prisoner at Rikers Island in New York has died of complications of COVID-19. Hundreds of prisoners and prison workers at jails across the city have tested positive as calls mount to release more prisoners. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he’ll release about 300 people from Rikers Island and other city jails. Rikers currently holds just over 5,000 people. Many are there for parole violations or are serving less than a year for low-level offenses. Many have not gone to trial yet; they simply don’t have money for bail.

For more, we’re joined by someone who was just released Saturday morning from Rikers. José Díaz is an NYU graduate student in social and cultural analysis with an emphasis on Latino studies. He was freed after a campaign calling for his release after he was arrested on a parole violation March 2nd. Also with us, Jose Saldana, director of the group [Release] Aging People in Prison, or RAPP. Jose was released from New York state prison in January 2018 after serving 38 years and four Parole Board denials. He had a recent column in USA Today headlined “Clemency is needed for incarcerated New Yorkers vulnerable to coronavirus.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! José Díaz, let’s begin with you. You just got out of Rikers. Describe what’s happening inside.

JOSÉ DÍAZ: Hey, Amy. Yeah, definitely. So, some of the things that, like, I would like to just highlight, you know, that we already know that Rikers Island is a public health crisis. Just basically you’re in close proximity with everyone, so there’s no way possible that you cannot get sick normally, in general, and now coronavirus has like kind of intensified that sentiment. So, that’s the overall idea. So everybody’s just on high alert. We don’t have access to any type of adequate cleaning supplies, in general, and now corona has like kind of forced officers to begin to ration the cleaning supplies even further. And, you know, everything has just been going like pretty much nuts, in general.

To also speak a little closer to like the inmate who passed away and the 273 inmates who were already like testing positive, as well as correction officers and health workers, and also a little bit to like half the jail being quarantined, I was in Otis Bantum Correctional Center, which is one of the jails in Rikers Island, but I wasn’t always there. I was initially in Manhattan House and transferred to the barge, or the Bronx detention center, and, from there, transferred into Rikers Island. There were no cases going on of corona in the Bronx, and they transferred me into a place that had corona. So, correctional facilities aren’t really thinking about the overall health of people or whether they’re jeopardizing people, in general. To them, it’s just normal business in how things are going.

But when you think about half the jail is quarantined, I was in a housing unit called Three Upper. By the time I left early Saturday morning, my house and another house were the only houses not quarantined on the dorm side in Otis Bantum Correctional Center. Everyone else was already quarantined. Guys might have tested positive and taken out of facility. Everyone else who was in that house with them and had been exposed to the virus were basically locked in. You couldn’t get out. And somehow, guys were still finding ways to get out and mingle amongst other people in the process, so there was also — the quarantine wasn’t taken serious. So, that’s pretty much like what’s going on, which also put a lot of people on high alert. And just not being able to have access to medical is another issue, as well. Yeah, that’s pretty much what I could think about on the medical level.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in a series of tweets, Dr. Ross MacDonald, the chief medical officer for Correctional Health Services in New York, called for the release of as many imprisoned New Yorkers as possible. He said it’s now unlikely officials will be able to halt the spread of COVID-19, predicting 20% of those infected will need hospitalization, 5% will require ventilators. He called the situation at Rikers a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.” José, moving on from there, you’ve got 5,000 people, primarily in Rikers, in the New York jail system. New York’s Legal Aid Society compiled COVID-19 infection rates in New York jails with stark findings. They calculated an infection rate of almost 4%, 3.91%, eight times higher than New York City, more than nine times higher than the hard-hit Lombardy region in Italy. Tina Luongo, the lead attorney in Legal Aid’s criminal defense practice, said in a statement, “Stop sending people to Rikers and let these New Yorkers out immediately. Anything else is too little, too late.” We talk about social distancing and how that saves lives. How do you social distance in jail?

JOSÉ DÍAZ: It’s impossible to social distance in jail. And also, they’re not releasing people. I was in on a technical violation, and I spent more than 30 days in prison. And had it not been for the people at NYU and other groups who like basically came up and like fought for me, I wouldn’t be out now talking to you, Amy. Also it’s like, what they’re doing, they’re like kind of like violating guys’ due process, because they basically suspended hearings, court hearings, in general, but they also suspended parole hearings. So, that being said, that if you were able to get out or had the possibility of getting out just through the actual due process of court, that’s suspended, so you’re just sitting there. And the issue is, it’s like you have guys who already like plead guilty or took a sentence for a parole violation, and since like, say, they’re offering like drug programs or things to that extent, the drug programs are no longer holding or accepting guys to come in.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, is this, José, is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, essentially sentencing people to death for misdemeanors, cruel and unusual punishment?

JOSÉ DÍAZ: It definitely is. And you don’t have the opportunity to basically social distance or have the opportunity to quarantine yourself from others. And speaking more directly to what you were asking, that my bed was less than three feet away from another man’s bed. It’s just impossible to social distance yourself, in general. The only thing you could possibly do is just wash your hands and hope for the best.

AMY GOODMAN: And how much access do you have to water? How much access do you have to soap? The word in the New York state prison that prisoners were making what was called New York Clean, in the Purell — the problem with not being able to get Purell, and selling it outside to people, what — 60% alcohol meant that people in the prisons were not allowed to use the very thing they were making to sell outside.

JOSÉ DÍAZ: Yeah. And not only that, I didn’t see any hand sanitizer at all whatsoever throughout my whole time. And I’ve been in three different facilities. So, that’s completely — like, I don’t know where, you know, if it’s there for us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Jose Saldana, director of RAPP. That’s [Release] Aging People in Prison. You were released from prison several years ago after serving almost 40 years and four parole board denials, your recent piece in USA Today headlined “Clemency is needed for incarcerated New Yorkers vulnerable to coronavirus.” We watch Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press briefing every day. It’s broadcast by so many of the networks. It’s kind of like a fireside chat in the old Fiorello La Guardia days. And he is being hailed as a person of great compassion, really laying out the facts, but he is rarely asked about the prisoners of New York. Talk about what’s happening and what your demand is, Jose Saldana.

JOSE SALDANA: Well, first of all, Governor Cuomo has handled this crisis with warlike preparations. And they may be commendable, but unfortunately for those who are incarcerated, especially the elderly and those with underlying conditions, he has totally ignored their plight. He has totally ignored that under his watch hundreds, and maybe thousands, of incarcerated elders will die because he failed to act. He has a moral obligation to view this crisis from a humanistic lens, where he has to decarcerate. All the health experts agree that in a prison setting, that is breeding grounds for this virus, decarceration is the only solution to stopping the spread of this virus. And he has yet to listen to the experts.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the problem particularly, Jose, of aging prisoners.

JOSE SALDANA: Well, aging people in prison, those 50 and over, experience a health crisis just about every day of their lives for years and decades. Substandard healthcare is definitely taking its tolls in New York state prisons. Now comes this deadly virus to infect people who are most vulnerable, not only in prison, but in our society. For Governor Cuomo not to address this particular issue, where the health conditions are just horrendous, for the most part, and now with this deadly virus that’s going to have catastrophic consequences — you know, we have to look at this from a humanistic lens, not from a legal perspective, but just by looking at people who are incarcerated as human beings. And we’re talking about the elders who have already languished in prison for three to four decades. They are the ones that have transformed a generation of younger incarcerated men and women for decades. We must look at them for what they are worth, and they have already demonstrated their human worth to us.

AMY GOODMAN: A man just died at Sing Sing of COVID-19. His name was Juan Mosquero. You were inside, you were behind bars, Jose, during other infectious disease outbreaks, whether it was SARS, whether it was — well, why don’t you tell us what happened inside?

JOSE SALDANA: Well, the problem with the Department of Correction is that they — every single health crisis that we have been impacted by in prison, they address it with punitive measures, pure punitive measures. The hand sanitizer, here they are addressing a pandemic health crisis, and they have incarcerated people making hand sanitizer that they are forbidden to have.

Now, unfortunately, we’re getting phone calls and emails from those incarcerated, and they’re explaining the situation in every — just about every max prison in New York state. The people are concerned, their families are concerned, that they are being forgotten. They are telling us about people who are visibly sick being denied sick call. Juan Mosquero was denied sick call. He died in his cell. When whole prisons are being denied sick call, being — sick call is being suspended when they need it the most, they are forced to just languish in their cell sick, and getting sicker and sicker until they die. The same thing happened at Great Meadow Correctional Facility.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. How many people do you want to see released, Jose Saldana?

JOSE SALDANA: I want to see as many as possible released. I’m primarily concerned with the elders, because they have already languished in prison for decades. And they can safely be returned to society, to their home communities, and they will enhance community safety, because they have the knowledge and the skills to address some of the social ills that we must address as a community. And anyone that has underlying conditions that this virus will prove fatal to, you have to release them. It’s the only human thing to do, and it’s the moral thing to do. And if Governor Cuomo is a moral man, if he is really concerned with those who are suffering the most from this virus, people of color, then he will address this in a human [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Jose Saldana, I want to thank you for being with us, director of RAPP, [Release] Aging People in Prison. Jose was released just a few years ago, after serving almost 40 years in prison. And José Díaz, NYU graduate student just released from Rikers on Saturday.

When we come back, we speak to the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan about plans to open the church’s doors to an almost 400-bed facility for patients to make room in the city’s overwhelmed hospitals, and their decision to work with Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Lebanese choreographer Sara Karrit, known on Instagram as “Afro by Sara,” dancing with her husband and son to the song “Nobody” by DJ Neptune during the COVID-19 quarantine in a video that’s gone viral.

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