For six months last year, Tranelle Drake worked up to fifteen hours a day packaging hand sanitizer—filling, capping, labeling and boxing bottles—in Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. He had signed up last March, putting in for a double shift as soon as he heard that incarcerated people were being enlisted to produce hand sanitizer.
It wasn’t for the pay—the most he made was 38 cents an hour. He just wanted to be of use to the outside world at a time when it seemed to be falling apart. “I did wrong to get in here, I made a mistake,” said Drake, who is two years into a thirteen-year sentence for charges of robbery, in an interview over the phone. “But I felt that I could do something to push that away.” He was pleased to find out that the hand sanitizer was sent on to hospitals, day cares, schools, and stores. “I’m happy about that,” he said. “We did a big thing, a huge thing. You should be thankful that we did that.”
But if Drake did his part to keep the state safe and clean, the favor has not been reciprocated. Tens of thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers have spent the last year in a dangerously unsanitary prison system in which Covid-19 has run rampant. “It’s just disgusting,” Drake said of Great Meadow. “You have birds that fly around in here all day. Pee and feces all over the floors, and the radiators—the heat’s barely on while it’s freezing out. You got broken windows all through it. It’s filthy. The officers walk around without masks on, and when they do have them, it’s around their neck. They don’t give you the proper cleaning supplies to be able to clean your cell.”
Few New Yorkers have been left as unprotected against the virus as the tens of thousands of people caught within its prison system. As Covid-19 surged across the state throughout the last year, just around ten percent of the prison population was granted early release. The other ninety percent—more than 32,000 people—have remained incarcerated, packed in facilities where social distancing is effectively impossible and health conditions are extremely poor. Indeed, prison watchdogs and advocates of incarcerated people say they’ve watched in horror this past year as the state agency that administers the prison system—the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS—failed to take the most basic protective measures, from reducing density to providing adequate PPE to offering widespread testing. Until late March, when a judge intervened, the governor even refused to provide most people in prison with vaccines.
These failures have translated directly into the prison system’s high Covid-19 case numbers. Since the beginning of the pandemic, DOCCS has recorded over 6500 positive coronavirus tests—a figure representing twice the positivity rate of the state at large—and 35 deaths. More people in prison have tested positive for the virus in 2021 than in the entirety of 2020, even as the rate of testing declined significantly from the fall. However, these numbers are not accurate, as the DOCCS has obscured the actual numbers of cases and deaths.
For example, DOCCS receives autopsy reports from county medical examiners on all deaths of incarcerated people. But the department does not report the number of autopsy reports that listed Covid-19 as a likely cause of death. Instead, a spokesperson indicated, it only tallies individuals who tested positive at the time of their death—meaning it would miss anyone who died without being tested, including in the first six months of the pandemic, when testing was extremely rare.
The prison system’s opacity has been especially grueling for incarcerated people and their families trying to evaluate their safety. “I don’t get much information on what’s going on with other prisoners other than the fact that I know they have a few guys downstairs from us quarantined,” Mitchell said earlier this year. “I don’t know if they’ve got Covid or not.”
To hear those inside New York’s prisons describe it, the problems with DOCCS’s Covid-19 response began immediately. Back in the spring of 2020, prisons prohibited incarcerated people from wearing masks and took disciplinary actions against those who used clothing as makeshift masks. It wasn’t until mid-April that DOCCS required staff to wear masks—and it wasn’t until mid-May that it gave all incarcerated people masks. (The CDC recommended that people wear masks in public on April 3rd.)
Masks are hard to come by in many prisons even today. Robert Adams, currently incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Westchester County, said that masks are only given out there once every two months—and that if people lose them, correctional officers tell them to make replacements out of shirt sleeves or handkerchiefs.
In a phone call in late January, Troy Hendrix, who was incarcerated at Marcy Correctional Facility, a prison in Oneida County, for most of the pandemic, said that correctional officers there would “get upset when you’d ask for masks. They’d tell you to rewash and that’s what you got. So, the mask that I have right now I’ve had since November.”
“I had to rig it, because it doesn’t fit,” Hendrix added.
Family members are barred from mailing masks to their loved ones.
Dontie “Mfalme” Mitchell said he’d been transferred between prisons four times during the pandemic. He was never tested upon arrival or departure, he said; as of this article’s publication, he has only ever been tested twice. Both Mitchell and Hendrix said they weren’t tested even after they had symptoms of sickness that they worried might be the coronavirus. Hendrix said he’d told prison medical staff about his symptoms and had asked to be tested but was only offered aspirin. “No test, no nothing,” he said. Mitchell said that he had decided against reporting his symptoms—lightheadedness and a runny nose and sore throat—because he worried that he would be put in solitary confinement.
The fear was well-grounded. When the coronavirus hit Elmira Correctional Facility last October, Jacob Rouse, a 33-year-old man who has spent nearly half his life in the New York state prison system, spent almost a month in solitary confinement after testing positive for the virus.
He had been working in the prison’s infirmary for 25 cents an hour, taking care of patients at a prison where the virus rate would soon approach 40 percent of the incarcerated population. He and other infirmary staff had been assured that if they came down with the virus, they would be given infirmary beds themselves, Rouse said. Instead, he was quarantined in a solitary confinement unit—a standard response to positive tests in maximum-security prisons throughout the state.
“We only came out a half an hour every other day. It was actually worse than solitary,” Rouse recalled, as “normal” solitary confinement affords an hour a day outside. The thirty minutes were all he was given to shower, access technology, and make a phone call to his wife, Samantha, and their two sons and two-year old daughter. “On top of that,” he added, “the staff were unwilling to answer any questions, to tell you any medical information, on how to treat it.”
Incarcerated people hope that the public will pay attention to the ongoing toll of Covid-19 in prisons and how the virus raged, out of sight, behind walls and bars, for more than a year. And they hope that the world will open its eyes to the many other ways the prison system breaks the body and spirit—that they will pay attention to prison labor when it’s producing furniture rather than hand sanitizer.
“This place alone is designed to break your spirits and destroy your mind,” Hendrix said. “You add on what’s going on with this pandemic and it’s like, we don’t know what to expect. You just have to find ways to protect yourself, because they’re not going to protect you.”
The DOCCS has weaponized the health crisis of Covid-19 against people in prison. Their continued attempts to wipe out prisoners and conceal this fact will not end until the prison system, and the state that perpetuates it, is destroyed.