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Sick And Frail As COVID-19 Looms: Medical Parole Still Rare In New York State

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From left to right, Gy Green, Arthur Green, and another relative Courtesy of Gy Green

Incarcerated people who have a terminal illness, or who are so sick it’s probable they no longer pose a threat to the community, may qualify for what’s called medical parole. But it is rarely granted, even in the midst of a world pandemic, in which institutions like prisons have become Petri dishes for highly-transmissible diseases like COVID-19 to fester and spread.

Arthur Green went to prison in 1976, after he was convicted of second-degree murder, robbery, and assault. He was 26 years old, but he’s 70 now, and as Green aged in prison, his health has deteriorated. His sister, Gy Green, says he has end stage renal failure, is on dialysis and often uses a wheelchair at Wende, a maximum-security facility just east of Buffalo. She is worried he will die if he catches COVID-19. So, she’s asking that her brother be released on medical parole, a process she says she didn’t know existed until a prison counselor suggested it. 

“We've put out one request and got nothing from it,” Gy Green told Gothamist. “Put out another request and got, ‘We received it’.”

She says that, over the length of her brother’s incarceration, it has been difficult to get information from the prison system. She believes it's one reason why her brother’s health has deteriorated. 

“I don't know anyone else in our family today who's had any problems with their kidneys,” she said.  I think it was definitely the stress and lack of care. And lack of communication with his family.”

According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) 21 incarcerated people have died so far from the coronavirus in New York prisons, three of them in the past week, while 2,660 have been infected.

The numbers keep rising, as a new surge takes hold. Since March, when the pandemic started, 1,049 people have filed for medical parole, more than double the amount received during a recent five-year period. The state granted nine of those petitions.

New York State’s medical parole law is expansive. Even people who were convicted of serious violent crimes are eligible if they have a terminal illness or any illness that seriously incapacitates them.  But according to a 2018 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, the system is still under-utilized. Plus, it takes too long for people to be “identified, processed, and released.”  Researchers found twice as many people die waiting to be considered than actually leave prison, an outcome that increases both human suffering and cost to taxpayers.  

“This is not a ‘soft on crime’ or ‘letting people get away’ with something. This is a way that we can save people's lives,” said Dr. Homer Venters, a physician and epidemiologist who currently consults with jails and prisons on their response to the ongoing pandemic. 

Venters used to be the chief medical officer for New York City jails. He believes that while doctors in prisons can identify the high-risk patients, they don’t know how to motivate governors and the massive prison bureaucracy to take action. 

“In order to get people through these administrative barriers, it requires administrators to care about it and it requires leadership, governors, and governors’ offices to really push hard on the idea that this is a public health intervention,” he said. 

DOCCS said that medical staff evaluate each medical parole application based on the criteria set by law. The agency also said that in its current form, the law doesn’t include a provision for individuals with pre-existing conditions at risk of a severe or possibly fatal outcome if they contract COVID.

When asked why the agency doesn’t let individuals and their families know they may be eligible for medical parole, a spokesperson said criteria is available to the public via a directive on the agency’s website. 

Releasing someone early from prison, especially someone who committed a violent act, can be politically dangerous terrain for many politicians, and it can also be painful for the victims. That’s why victims as well as prosecutors often have input along with an applicant’s advocates. At the same time, studies show that elderly and infirm people in prison are unlikely to reoffend.

“My personal belief is that if somebody is not currently posing a risk they should be eligible for parole and they should be released,” said Christopher Bromson, Executive Director of Crime Victims Treatment Center. He acknowledges that victims’ advocates don’t all agree, but said that his organization believes in criminal justice reform and, thus, early release for the elderly and infirm.

And while many individuals who have been behind bars for decades have lost touch with loved ones and will face a challenge finding a place to live upon release, especially if they require a high level of medical care, that’s not the case for Arthur Green whose family anxiously awaits his return.

But for now, Green remains at the Wende prison. With the COVID numbers ticking up, visits are suspended until further notice, and getting Green out has become more urgent for his family. Like other families, Gy Green is turning to emergency clemency for her brother, a faster route to freedom.  

Clemency is different from medical parole, which falls under the purview of the Department of Corrections. Only the governor has the power to grant clemency — to pardon or commute someone’s sentence. Suffering from a terminal illness or chronic disability is one factor the governor considers.      

Governor Andrew Cuomo has also released more than 3,500 people from New York prisons this year due to the pandemic. But none of those people were convicted of serious crimes, like Green where only medical parole or clemency give them a chance at freedom.

Last week, the governor did grant clemency to 21 people. Green was not one of them. 

“I just can't imagine what it's like for my brother, I don't even want to go there,” Gy Green said. “I just try to do what I can on this side and hope that inside somebody is doing what they can for him.”

When asked how much a person’s physical health factors into the Governor’s decision to release someone, Cuomo’s office did not respond. 

The Department of Corrections said to protect a person’s privacy it won’t comment on any specific applications.

Cindy Rodriguez reports for the Race & Justice Unit at Gothamist/WNYC.

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