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Disparate impact of COVID-19 highlights inequities in NYS correctional system


Incarcerated people and officers at Rikers Island in New York, Sept. 8, 2017. Photo: Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times/Redux


Formerly incarcerated Chief Strategist Khalil Cumberbatch of New Yorkers United for Justice (NYUJ) — a coalition consisting of 15 leading criminal justice reform organizations — testified today before the New York State Legislature Hearing on Disparate Impact of COVID-19 on Minority Communities. Cumberbatch called for more robust coronavirus testing among inmate populations. New York has trailed behind other states with regard to inmate testing. Experts point to major disparities in the data released by New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS).


During the hearing, Cumberbatch urged legislators to address some of the inequities within the criminal justice system by conducting more mass testing in prisons. Despite only accounting for 37% of the state population, black and Latinx New Yorkers make up 72% of the state prison population and over 87% of the NYC city jail population. Cumberbatch pointed to an article published last week by the Daily News, revealing that the recent spike of inmate deaths as a result of the coronavirus is disparately impacting people of color. Since the first known COVID-19 death in a DOCCS facility on March 30, 27 inmates have died; over 80% of them were black.

Today, Cumberland testified:


“Mass testing in our prison facilities is absolutely critical to ensuring the health and safety of not only our incarcerated population, but also communities where correctional staff reside. Outside of the prison context, COVID-19 has had a terrible toll, on our communities of color, as has been reported in numerous media outlets and acknowledged by the CDC. If we do not have a clear picture of the spread of COVID-19 in our prisons, where social distancing and proper hygiene are near impossibilities, this disparate impact on New Yorkers of color will only worse.”


The World Health Organization’s states that a population positive rate over 10% indicates a severe lack of testing. Although the latest figures from the DOCCS currently indicate that the positive rate of individuals incarcerated in New York state prisons is 66%, as of May 15th, only 1.6% of the population has been tested. Among the prisons and jails that are releasing data, Rikers Island published a 9.6% positive rate and Otisville Prison an 8% rate. Cumberbatch argued that while New York leads the country in testing per capita, it lags behind states such as Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, and Arkansas in mass prison testing. According to NYUJ, New York State has failed to properly develop a plan of action to implement mass coronavirus testing of inmates and to mandate the collection and release of relevant data by jails and prisons.

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