State prisons in New York began accepting individuals from local jails again this week. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision suspended all transfers late last year to limit the spread of COVID-19, leaving in the lurch people who are sentenced and incarcerated in county jails.
Amber Westmoreland was in the Broome County jail for nearly two years before she was released to a state facility for women on March 31. Westmoreland was first arrested and held at the jail for violating conditions of her parole and later a drug charge in March 2019. A year later, she appeared in court and asked for more time to consider a plea deal.
In the days following, the pandemic hit and effectively put her case on pause. While still at the jail this winter, Westmoreland said she was frustrated.
“We’re stuck here. We can’t get sentenced. We can’t go home,” said Westmoreland. “We can’t do anything.”
In October 2020, approximately a year and a half after the drug charge, Westmoreland was sentenced to a maximum of 18 months, which she would serve in state prison.
The median length of stay in the Broome County jail increased from 74 days in March to 102 days in June of last year, according to data from the Vera Institute of Justice. The 40% increase was largely due to court shutdowns that paused cases like Westmoreland’s.
Her lawyer, Veronica Gorman, said several of her clients’ cases got tied up in pandemic chaos.
“I just think that Amber is one of a group of people that got caught in the perfect storm of events in an unprecedented time,” Gorman said.
Between lockdowns and quarantines at both county jails and state prisons, including transfer hubs like the Elmira Correctional Facility, Westmoreland was not able to be moved after her sentencing in the fall.
Then, in December, DOCCS suspended transfers entirely.
According to Broome County Sheriff David Harder, close to a quarter of the jail’s 433 residents were waiting to be transferred to state prisons as of Tuesday. Once all of them are transferred, the jail’s population is expected to drop to around 333. That will open space in the facility, which has the second-highest incarceration rate in the state.
The Broome County jail saw COVID-19 outbreaks over the last several months that limited movement and programs in the facility. For Westmoreland, suspension meant she could not participate in educational and conditional release programs or parole boards that would benefit her, even though she was considered a state-ready inmate.
“So why is it state sentenced inmates are being punished by not getting the same treatment as every other state inmate all because we’re housed in county jails?” she wrote in a letter.
Transfers resumed on Tuesday, with two conditions: county jails are only eligible for DOCCS intake if they do not have any active COVID-19 cases at the moment, and no person currently being contact-traced may be submitted for a transfer.
As for the 100 state-ready people eligible for transfers this week, Gorman said they have not served “dead time.” Each person will still get credit from their county jail time against their sentences.
“However, that doesn’t necessarily make it any better for the person who’s sitting there wanting to know what’s happening to their case,” Gorman added.
People sitting in local jails do not know how their time will count against their total sentence. That is calculated only once they are received by a state prison, according to DOCCS.
Westmoreland, who sat in the jail six months longer than her sentence, questioned how the system worked.
“All my time technically is in,” said Westmoreland, who, as of Wednesday, is serving at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. “Why am I not on parole right now?”
According to DOCCS’s database, Westmoreland is eligible for a parole hearing based on merit in Oct. 2022, with a conditional release date was set for March 15, 2023. Her latest possible release date is Nov. 15, 2023. A parole board discharge date has not yet been set, but she will have to complete the parole she did not complete upon her arrest in March 2019, which stands at around 51 months.
Westmoreland said she will do her time that the state requires, as long as it gets her back to her sisters and daughter.
“I’ve already been gone two years, and my family needs me,” she said.