Vigils Demand Clemency for Those Threatened by COVID in Prisons

Families and advocates demand testing of all incarcerated people and clemency for those most at risk of COVID-19. Photo credit: Walter Hergt, North Star Fund.

NEW YORK — Formerly incarcerated people and the families and communities of people now in prison held a vigil outside Fishkill Correctional Facility on Friday to demand the release of those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Congregate living quarters and little or no personal protective equipment make prisons potential hotbeds of coronavirus infection. So far, 85 of those incarcerated at Fishkill have tested positive for COVID-19, more than any other prison in the state, and five have died.

According to Mark Shervington, statewide community organizer for the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, the vigil was held in the prison burial grounds to honor the lives of those who have died, and to demand action to protect those most at risk.

“To grant immediate executive clemency without broad categories of people being excluded based on their kind of conviction to avoid mass deaths in prison,” he states.

Statewide, more than 1,100 prison staff and 415 of those incarcerated have tested positive for COVID-19. But RAPP says only 1% of the incarcerated have been tested.


Corrections officers now are allowed to wear surgical masks and the incarcerated population is allowed to use state-issued handkerchiefs as face masks. But Shervington says that isn’t enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s really insufficient as well as too late,” he stresses. “They only recently started doing that after the number of infections among the prisoners and the staff began to rise.”

Shervington adds that releasing those near the end of long sentences and those who are parole eligible or already approved for parole would further reduce the prison population.

Shervington says two pieces of legislation, the Elder Parole Bill and the Fair and Timely Parole Act, introduced last year in the State Legislature, would have made some of the most vulnerable in state prisons eligible for release.

“If those bills had been passed during the legislative session, then we would most likely not be in the position that we are now,” he states.

On Tuesday, criminal justice reform advocates will gather outside the Edgecombe Correctional Facility to continue their call for clemency for vulnerable prisoners.

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