Advocates call for early release of all inmates at 'prison nursing home' in the Adirondacks

Jul 8, 2020

A state prison in the North Country is now home to nearly 100 inmates all over the age of 55. Officials say they transferred inmates to Adirondack Correctional because of the low coronavirus infection rate in the North Country.

Advocates gathered near the prison earlier this week and called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant clemency to the inmates, who they say are at a high risk of getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19.

 

About 30 people gathered outside Adirondack Correctional Facility to call for the release of elder inmates.
Credit Emily Russell / NCPR News

UPDATE: According to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, one inmate at Adirondack Correctional has tested positive for COVID-19. The state told the paper all inmates have been tested and, as of Monday, there are no additional cases at the prison.

A group of about 30 people got together Monday evening along a busy road in Ray Brook near Adirondack Correctional Facility. They were all wearing masks and kept their distance from each other. One of the advocates at Monday’s rally was Jose Saldaña, the director of the Release Aging People Prisons Campaign.

“We’re up here because we want to bring awareness to a very serious crisis that may erupt at any time in this facility.”

The inmates now in Adirondack Correctional were transferred here over the last month, some from prisons downstate that have had serious outbreaks of COVID-19. Saldaña says if the virus spreads inside Adirondack Correctional, it could be a death sentence for the older inmates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 80% of coronavirus-related deaths in the US are people 65 and older. 

Just down the road at a federal prison, 11 inmates and at least 7 staff members have gotten sick from the coronavirus.

“Hey hey, Cuomo, free our elders, let them go,” the group chanted. Saldaña and the other advocates are calling on Governor Cuomo to grant clemency to all 95 inmates inside Adirondack Correctional.

The Department of Corrections says the inmates were moved here to reduce their risk of infection. According to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, a majority of inmates were tested after arriving in the North Country. They’re awaiting the test results. 

The paper also reports more than 1,200 inmates statewide have been released early because of the pandemic. Criteria for early release, though, is strict. It’s largely limited to older, non-violent offenders who are within 90 days of their release

 

Jose Saldaña is the director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign.
Credit Emily Russell / NCPR News

Saldaña, who served 38 years in state prison, said the state should expand those criteria. “I was convicted of a violent crime and today I’m not only the director of a grassroots organizing advocacy group, but I am also a board member of Senator Jamaal Bailey’s criminal justice reform council.”

Saldaña said older inmates give back to their communities. Local advocates at Monday’s rally joined Saldaña in his call for clemency. They also saw it as part of a larger movement. Some people held signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”

“We, as rural New Yorkers, must speak up for the rights of our neighbors who are brought here to be punished or hidden away during a pandemic," said Zohar Gitlis, co-chair of the High Peaks Democratic Socialists of America. “We also must speak up for the right of our community to sustain itself without compromising our compassion in the name of stable jobs.”

Martha Swan is the executive director of John Brown Lives! an education and human rights group based in the Adirondacks.
Credit Emily Russell / NCPR News

Prisons play a huge role in the North Country's economy, as more than a dozen state correctional facilities employ hundreds of people in the region.

“The North Country made a bargain with the devil over four decades ago," said Martha Swan.

Swan is the executive director of the advocacy group John Brown Lives! Swan said the North Country hitched "the region’s economy and our personal livelihoods to mass incarceration and the imprisonment of fathers of fellow New Yorkers, mostly and disproportionately Black and Latino fathers, sons, brothers, uncles.”

According to data from the Release Aging People in Prisons Campaign, more than 75% of the inmates now at Adirondack Correctional Facility are people of color. According to the CDC, Black and Brown people are four to five times more likely to be hospitalized if they contract COVID-19.