Last year, Tranelle Drake worked up to 15 hours a day packaging hand sanitizer – filling, capping, labeling and packaging bottles – at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York State, for six months. He signed up last March and worked a double shift as soon as he heard that detainees were being recruited to make hand sanitizer.
It wasn’t for pay – most of what he made was 38 cents an hour. He only wanted to be of use to the outside world at a time when it seemed to be falling apart. “I was wrong about coming in here. I made a mistake, ”said Drake, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for two years for robbery, in a telephone interview. “But I felt like there was something I could do to move that away.” He was pleased to find that the hand sanitizer was being distributed to hospitals, day care centers, schools and stores. “I’m happy about it,” he said. “We did a big deal, a big deal. You should be grateful that we did that. ”
But if Drake did his part to keep the state safe and clean, the favor was not returned. Tens of thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers have spent the past year in a dangerously unsanitary prison system where Covid-19 is rampant. “It’s just gross,” Drake said of Great Meadow. “Birds fly around here all day. Peeing and dropping all over the floor and on the radiators – the heat is barely on while it’s freezing. You have broken windows all over the place. It’s dirty. The officers walk around without a mask and when they have it, it’s around their neck. They don’t give you the right detergents to clean your cell. “
Few New Yorkers have been left as unprotected against the virus as tens of thousands of people trapped in its prison system. When Covid-19 rose across the state last year, only around 10 percent of the prison population was released early. The other 90 percent – more than 32,000 people – have remained incarcerated and placed in facilities where social distancing is virtually impossible and health conditions are extremely poor. Indeed, prison guards and inmate advocates say they watched in horror over the past year as the state agency that manages the prison system – the Department of Corrections and Community Oversight (DOCCS) – failed to implement the most basic protective measures to reduce density to adequate PPE in order to be able to offer comprehensive tests. In fact, until the end of March, when a judge intervened, the governor refused to provide vaccines to most of the people in prison.
“You show me a best practice from Covid, and I’ll show you a place where DOCCS failed,” said Alexander Horowitz, executive director of New Yorkers United for Justice, a coalition of New York criminal justice reform organizations. “There is no other area of life in New York where mass testing has not been the standard. There is no other population that is generally in poor health and confines itself to gatherings that have not been prioritized for vaccines. There is no other type of Community environment that we have not tried to reduce density, whether it is schools, care facilities or hospitals. “