Study: State's COVID-19 inmate release program not meeting expected goals

Jan 19, 2021

A new analysis of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order to release certain inmates from county jails during the pandemic finds fault in its administration.


Credit File Photo / WBFO News

Njera Wilson spent 13 months in jail, not for committing a crime, but because of a technical parole violation.

“It had a tremendous effect on myself and my loved ones,” he said. “More so myself because I lost my house that I had and everything in it. I lost my entire employment, where I was making $28 an hour. So it’s like starting all over again.”

In March of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic grew, the governor ordered the release of people jailed on technical parole violations as a health measure for county jails across the state.

But Dr. Stephen Hart, author of a study on the implementation of that order, said the program has not been carried out to its stated goals.

“Statewide, only 38% of people in jail on technical were released,” he said, “leaving over 1,000 behind to face the danger of being in an extremely crowded, unsanitary, largely unmasked and uncontrolled environment during a pandemic.”

In Erie County that number is even lower, at 28.5%.

Hart said the failure largely falls on the shoulders of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS.

“The primary responsibility here is DOCCS,” he said, “because they control who gets in or out. The county sheriff, the county DA, none of them can let somebody out when parole has a detainer order, which they can issue. DOCCS issues that order and nobody has the authority or the right to disregard that order under state law.”

Hart believes that authority should be taken away from DOCCS and given to a different agency. While it won’t happen overnight, he said changes can be made in the interim.

“The governor,” he said, “should insist that everyone accused of parole violations -- those in jail now and those accused in the future -- be released, with exceptions for the few cases that DOCCS can demonstrate to a neutral arbiter, real public safety risks based on a person’s current actions.”

Because of its low rate of releases, Hart believes special attention for this policy should be paid to Erie County.

Read the report here.