Incarcerated individuals at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the state of New York’s only maximum-security facility for women, say they are being denied food, according to Survived and Punished New York, a grassroots coalition.
Multiple sources within the facility have shared information with Survived and Punished New York on this development and conditions are deteriorating as staff continue a lockdown that is supposedly aimed at protecting prisoners from the spread of the coronavirus.
Maria Iskaros, an organizer with Survived and Punished New York, told Shadowproof, “In terms of the meals that people have been getting, we heard that infirmary people weren’t getting breakfast until 10 a.m., and they had to yell and kick doors to even get that at all.”
“People believe that they’re running out of food because whatever is leftover from the main meal they end up giving that to the new set of people.”
“One morning, everyone got a half of a glass of milk in a small styrofoam cup,” Iskaros added. “People have been served milk for breakfast without anything else.”
No one has starved to death, but Iskaros said prisoners definitely are feeling the effects of hunger.
Iskaros could not say which unit is being denied food without exposing sources to possible retaliation. Yet, the coalition’s press release indicates multiple people have informed them they are not being fed properly.
Prisoners in the facility were on 23-hour lockdown. After a phone call campaign against the prison, the facility gave prisoners two additional hours outside their cells.
“They had to fight to get masks. Some folks only received a mask after they got infected and were positive,” according to Iskaros. “Folks still aren’t getting tested for COVID. The COs and guards there are giving limited information about what’s going on.”
Iskaros also said guards have told prisoners, “Hey, we read what your emailing. So watch what you’re writing in your emails. They’re trying to intimidate people inside in that way.”
According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS), 38 prisoners at Bedford Hills have tested positive for the coronavirus. One prisoner has died from COVID-19.
State facilities are not engaged in the mass testing of prisoners and so numbers reported by the state of New York should be viewed with an appropriate level of skepticism.
“It seems like we’re hitting that point where they didn’t act fast enough to release folks, and so now people are catching the virus. And then the people who are most vulnerable are unfortunately dying,” Iskaros suggested.
Survived and Punished New York launched a commissary fundraiser for women inside Bedford Hills. They also engaged in phone zaps for the past week directed at the facility’s temporary superintendent to protest the lockdown, “non-coercive testing and treatment for free,” “full medical policy transparency,” and “free complete meals to all.”
“What we’re seeing now is an escalation of the intentional violence that prisons have always inflicted on our loved ones, friends, and neighbors, and a weaponization of COVID-19 against incarcerated people,” said Diana Colavita, an organizer with Survived and Punished NY. “This is why Governor [Andrew] Cuomo MUST grant mass clemencies without conditions now [emphasis not added].”
Thus far, according to NYSDOCCS, the state has released 791 people from state facilities. There are over 40,000 people in state custody.
Cuomo responded to pressure on and authorized the release of pregnant women, who are less than six months away from the day they would be released from prison.
On May 1, forty-seven state lawmakers urged Cuomo and other officials to release prisoners. “We agree with the hundreds of medical and public health experts and advocates across the country: the only effective way to prevent the unending spread of COVID-19 is to release people from the confines of prison. If you do not act now, we must prepare for a catastrophic loss of life behind bars.”
While other state governors have used their broad clemency powers to release individuals from prison, Cuomo has been extremely reluctant to release vulnerable people as the virus spreads in state facilities.
As Steve Zeidman, a professor at CUNY School of Law, wrote, “Governor Cuomo was asked whether he had any plans to grant broad clemencies to people in prison, particularly to vulnerable populations. His testy and dismissive response –’How about if they are violent and just started their sentence?’—was telling.”
“Presumably, the governor meant to remove from consideration people he believed remained a threat to public safety and had not been sufficiently punished.”
“The governor’s apparent disregard for anyone recently convicted of a violent crime is reminiscent of times when convicted people were sent to places like Devil’s Island where leprosy and other diseases flourished, and tens of thousands of incarcerated people died,” Zeidman concluded.