County refuses, saying they are too dangerous
Public defenders in Putnam County have asked a state judge to release eight inmates they say face life-threatening consequences because of the threat of COVID-19.
David Squirrell, the chief attorney for the Putnam County Legal Aid Society, on May 5 petitioned the court on behalf of seven inmates at the county jail who the group says have illnesses that include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and diabetes. Another inmate does not have an underlying condition but Legal Aid says he is at risk for infection.
The jail, which has 128 beds, had 29 inmates as of Monday (May 11). It represents a “close and confined environment” that prevents social distancing and requires inmates to interact with guards and new detainees who might have been infected outside the facility, the petition said.
Legal Aid says it is “wishful thinking” to believe the county can prevent inmates from being infected.
The county, in its response, said Legal Aid was asking for the release of “alleged and admitted rapists, repeat felony offenders, one who has previously been convicted of homicide, and individuals accused and convicted of violating probation, bail-jumping and violating court-issued orders of protection,” while the jail was doing enough to keep them safe from COVID-19.
There have been no confirmed cases of inmates testing positive at either the Putnam or Dutchess County jails, according to county authorities. One corrections officer at the Putnam jail tested positive and returned to work after completing a14-day quarantine, and four staff members at the Dutchess’ jail are on leave after testing positive.
Legal Aid is asking that three inmates awaiting sentencing, one awaiting transfer to a state prison (which are not accepting county prisoners during the pandemic) and another who has pleaded guilty to felony incest and rape be temporarily released to stay with family until the court system resumes normal operations. All legal proceedings but those deemed “essential” are on hold due to COVID-19 restrictions. Two of the other inmates have release dates set in June and July, and another is being held on bail for a misdemeanor charge.
Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday (May 18) before Victor Grossman, a Supreme Court judge based in Carmel.
“There is no doubt that the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department is doing its best, but the only way to alleviate the unconstitutional danger faced by the petitioners is to release them,” the Legal Aid Society wrote.
Legal Aid alleges that the inmates’ detention constitutes “cruel and unusual punishments” banned by the state constitution and Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and violates the inmates’ due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
About 90 percent of the 22,000 New York residents who had died from COVID-19 as of Wednesday (May 13) had one or more underlying conditions, with hypertension and diabetes the top two medical problems and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) the seventh-most-prevalent, according to the state Department of Health.
One of Legal Aid’s plaintiffs, a 54-year-old man who is being held on $7,500 bail or $15,000 bond on a misdemeanor criminal contempt charge, uses an inhaler for COPD, which has contributed to nearly 2,000 of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
The county, in a response to the petition filed on Tuesday (May 12) by Larry Glasser, an assistant district attorney, opposes the inmate’s release, saying that his COPD is “well-controlled by medication.” Although he is being held on the misdemeanor charge, the man faces three counts of contempt from three other cases, Glasser said.
Another plaintiff, a 44-year-old prisoner who signed an agreement binding him to plead guilty to felony rape and incest charges, has high blood pressure. The county said his condition, too, is being treated with medication.
The county also opposed the release of a 36-year-old inmate awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to selling drugs and jumping bail. The prisoner was given an inhaler for his asthma and “has had no complaints since,” according to the county.
The county has consented to the release of one inmate, a 23-year-old man with Type 1 diabetes who has been serving consecutive sentences of 179 days each for probation violations related to a misdemeanor. His sentence ends June 12.
Glasser, in the county’s filing, said that Putnam has taken “unprecedented measures” to protect inmates and staff.
Employees must wash their hands and have their temperature taken when entering the jail and inmates are given surgical masks and have their temperatures taken daily, he said. In addition, according to the filing, new detainees are screened and separated from the general population for 14 days after arriving, and cells, staff workstations and common areas undergo disinfecting and cleaning.
Other measures include the designation of a quarantine area, the suspension of programming and a ban on congregate eating in the kitchen or dining area, the filing said. Inmates are allowed to eat in their cells. Those policies and procedures have proven to be “highly effective,” it said.
Jails and prisons have drawn the attention of elected officials and advocates during the pandemic because they are considered particularly vulnerable to outbreaks due to the close proximity in which inmates live.
At Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, 89 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday, and five had died, the most of any state prison in both categories. Statewide, 443 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, and 16 have died.
The New York City Legal Aid Society filed a similar petition in April, with mixed results. A state judge ordered the release of 18 Rikers Island inmates with heart disease, respiratory problems, diabetes and other conditions but declined to release 14 others because he found nothing “to suggest that they are in more danger than the average inmate.”