The demonstration took place in front of Queensboro Correctional Facility, where 126 people are currently incarcerated and are within 120 days of release.
According to advocates, who cited family members and other sources, at least six inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. At least one staff member at the prison also passed away from the virus.
“It makes no sense to me that under these conditions, the governor wouldn’t use his clemency powers to release people to save lives,” said Mark Shervington, a community organizer with the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) Campaign. “The people in there are just sitting there, practically waiting to die.”
Across the state, nearly 4,800 people are incarcerated in prisons within one year of release. Advocates said all of them should be released for public health reasons.
Jared Chausow, a senior policy specialist with Brooklyn Defender Services, said activists have heard from doctors and incarcerated people themselves that social distancing is nearly impossible in prisons, jails and detention centers.
“There is no public interest served to force these people to serve out the rest of their sentences in these facilities,” he said.
Inside Queensboro Correctional Facility, activists said, the inmates sleep within two feet of each other. The only way to get around the six-story facility is through cramped elevators and narrow stairways, they said.
Assemblywoman Latrice Walker said she has visited the Queensboro facility before, and noted that all the incarcerated people there live in a “family-style” setting, with bunk beds in what look like dorm rooms.
“It’s safer for these people to be out in the community than behind bars,” she said. “It’s a cesspool, it’s a death sentence.
“Our prisons are dangerous incubators for coronavirus,” Walker added. “We’re just asking for a basic request of humanity. Their sentences are virtually over.”
Marvin Mayfield, the New York state organizer for Just Leadership USA, said the only thing worse than dying alone is dying alone in a cage. He also expressed concern about the corrections officers who are working in the prison.
“That building is a proverbial petri dish of viruses,” Mayfield said. “There’s no way someone can protect themselves if someone else is sick.”
Among the people incarcerated at Queensboro Correctional Facility is James Castro, who has been inside for six weeks during the pandemic. His mother, Lazara Almonte, said at the protest that the inmates have no masks and there is little social distancing happening.
“They are not in a safe environment,” she said. “They have no protections.”
Almonte pleaded to allow them to go home and be safe with their families.
“They just want to be safe,” she said. “Please have mercy on them.”