By Steven Paulikas, Mr. Paulikas is an Episcopal priest.
Witnessing unwarranted suffering is a solemn duty of the priesthood. But when one of my parishioners died of Covid-19 in a New York State prison, I felt the need to not only witness but to also tell the story he no longer can — the story of a prison system that failed to protect his life and the lives of so many others in its care, subjecting them to confusion, fear and even death.
This man committed a crime and was sentenced to two years in prison; he was not sentenced to death. But death is the penalty he received. I hope that my parishioner’s story will heighten the sense of urgency for a wholesale reform of New York’s prisons.
My parishioner, who was 68 at the time of his death, had built a stable life on a foundation of trauma born of an abusive upbringing. He was mild-mannered and slightly eccentric, and lived alone. He worked as a caretaker for the elderly, loved to travel and sang in the church choir. We had a running yet playful conflict in which I consistently rebuffed his requests to program the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” during the Sunday liturgy. I always had the impression that church was the family and the support structure he never had growing up and couldn’t build for himself as an adult, and I watched with affection as our faith community lovingly honored the sacred place the church had in his life.
But in 2016 he was convicted of a criminal sexual act involving a minor. News of his crime was a shock, his sister told me. I was equally confounded and disturbed, and I confess that I often found it difficult to foster pastoral empathy toward him, given the nature of his crime.
The sister and brother had immigrated separately from Belize to the United States 40 years ago and stayed in close touch even though she lived on the West Coast. (As his closest relative, she gave me permission to tell his story, but I’ve chosen not to use his name in order to protect those his crime affected.) When I attended his sentencing hearing in a Brooklyn courtroom, I watched as he was sent to prison with the 10 or so other men of color who came before the judge, while the one white man present received probation. In a state with an African American population of roughly 17 percent, my parishioner became part of the astounding nearly 50 percent of New York’s prison population that is Black.
Our regular letter correspondence during my parishioner’s incarceration kept me up-to-date on his life. Singing during religious services during his term gave him a weekly spiritual release, but mostly he felt frightened, alone and trapped in a system he feared he’d never escape. He arrived at Fishkill Correctional Facility in June 2019 after serving the bulk of his sentence in the St. Lawrence Valley. Fishkill, just outside the fashionable Hudson Valley town of Beacon, is a hulking fortress, parts of which opened in the early 1890s as the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In his first letter from the facility, he told me that his arthritis and diabetes made it hard for him to navigate the Victorian-era stairs. He wasn’t in the best of health in the outside world, and I could see a visible decline — a common occurrence for older incarcerated people — when I visited him shortly before his transfer to Fishkill.
As my parishioner’s parole date approached, the state offered to place him in what is essentially a homeless shelter in the Bronx for formerly incarcerated people. Strange as it may seem, he chose to remain in prison after he was eligible to leave, and I understood why. Our system lacks a viable “release valve” for people like him whose financial stability collapses while incarcerated and who don’t have an extended support system. Moving to a potentially dangerous place without adequate access to health care in an unfamiliar borough seemed foolhardy. His sister sent a notarized letter offering to house him, but her request was rejected because she lives in a different state.
His letters took on a tone of terror as soon as the pandemic hit. “The inmates do not go anywhere on the outside so it is the staff who is bringing the VIRUS,” he wrote, as if the existential threat it posed to him couldn’t be expressed with lowercase letters. That was his last letter to me, dated April 7, 2020.
At that point, the state was still tinkering with policies on individual issues like visitations, quarantining and social distancing, and had yet to develop a plan addressing all aspects of life in prison during a pandemic. Meanwhile, the virus began to spread in New York’s prisons. The state had dug graves for several incarcerated victims of the pandemic in the cemetery adjacent to the prison around the time he wrote the letter.
I received word my parishioner was dead on May 2. Another member of our church who used to speak with him weekly became concerned when he didn’t make his regular call. Since the pandemic’s start, he’d always tried to be the first in line at the phone, for fear of using the receiver after someone who was infected. A few days later, a hospital near Fishkill called her to report his death. She became emotional recently as we talked about the state’s handling of his case. “Life had no meaning for them,” she said of the prison officials.
No one outside the prison even knew he was sick.
I lived under the shadow of my parishioner’s death for almost a year, returning often to the sense of powerlessness he felt in trying to protect his own life. Eventually, I decided to look into the state’s Covid-19 prison response. What I’ve learned confirms the outrage and condemnation of watchdog groups, including the failing grade for Covid-19 response given to New York by the Prison Policy Initiative last June.
In the spring of 2020, when my parishioner died and while New York was reporting thousands of new cases daily statewide, it was already apparent that the state was unprepared to respond to the unfolding crisis in its prisons. In March that year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proudly announced the state’s own line of hand sanitizer, “made conveniently by the State of New York.” He failed to explain that the sanitizer was bottled in a state correctional facility by incarcerated people — at the same time that Covid-19 infections were skyrocketing in those places. The state didn’t actually mandate the availability of sanitizer in correctional facilities until the end of the month.
The close quarters of Fishkill’s congregate setting were a tinderbox for largely unmasked residents without adequate access to testing, but it wasn’t until mid-May — a week after my parishioner died — that the state reported it had completed distributing masks in its facilities. Advocacy groups say there wasn’t consistent access to masks even after that: Laurie Dick, who runs the grass-roots advocacy group Beacon Prison Action, told me that during a demonstration outside the prison around Thanksgiving, people inside opened windows and yelled that they needed masks. “I couldn’t believe that in November still they were struggling with masks,” she said.
After all this, the state largely withheld the single most important measure to save lives: the vaccine. The Health Department’s “phase one” vaccine eligibility list included residents of all state-run congregate living settings — except prisons. In March, Judge Alison Tuitt of the State Supreme Court in the Bronx ordered New York to offer vaccines to all incarcerated people, adding that their exclusion from access was “unfair and unjust.”
Who can we hold accountable for this failure to adequately protect New York State’s incarcerated people? I reached out to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which operates New York’s prisons, to ask who was in charge of the state’s Covid-19 prison policy. It provided me with extensive information, including this written statement: “From the onset of the Covid-19 health crisis, NYS DOCCS has worked around-the-clock with the governor’s office and multiple state agencies to ensure the protection of both the incarcerated population and our staff.” It is true that after the first peak of infections, DOCCS carried out Covid-19 mitigation measures, including the early release of almost 4,000 incarcerated people.
But the language of this statement is unclear about who ultimately calls the shots — DOCCS or Governor Cuomo. “If we don’t know who’s making the decisions, we don’t know who to engage,” said Stefen Short, a supervising lawyer at the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, which helped litigate the vaccine case against the state.
One thing I do know: For those with power over other people’s lives, bureaucracies that work in shadows are the ultimate “convenience,” to borrow Governor Cuomo’s word. What happens to the nearly two million people in our nation’s prison system demonstrates who we are as a people. When the state deprives people of their freedom, it also assumes responsibility for their safety. I don’t want to live in a society that is comfortable locking away so many of its members, yet treats their lives with indifference. I can no longer stand a status quo in which someone like my parishioner loses his life for no good reason.
I know that the reality of prison can seem remote and irrelevant to those who haven’t experienced it. It’s tempting to ignore what happens behind bars. But the only way for anything to change is for all of us to pay attention — and to let lawmakers know we’re paying attention.
There are immediate actions New York should take. First, DOCCS should ensure that its existing vaccination and other Covid-19 safety policies are administered uniformly across all 50 state facilities. The spotty quality of prison medical care infrastructure is a persistent complaint in the system; greater central control could ensure smoother vaccination and better care of the infected. “The state’s prison medical care infrastructure is structured in such a way that DOCCS central can’t really oversee all of it,” Mr. Short told me. “So much of the state’s prison system is run like 50 individual fiefdoms.”
Another issue that continues to gnaw at many in the prison reform community is the state’s official tally of Covid-19 infections and deaths. As of May 28, DOCCS reports only 35 confirmed deaths in a population of about 35,000 that suffered widespread exposure to the virus. Given that the governor’s administration has seriously undercounted Covid-19 deaths in state nursing homes, it is not unreasonable to demand that DOCCS submit to an independent audit of its statistics and reporting methods.
But these efforts would be just a Band-Aid on a festering wound. My parishioner was up against a system that disproportionately punishes his race, has little vision for returning people like him to society and ultimately failed to keep him alive. Our eye-for-an-eye system of justice mandates the suffering of those who the state has determined caused suffering to others. His death is a reminder that ultimately, the only way truly to end the cycle is to end the carceral state as we know it and replace it with more humane responses that actually seek to heal, rehabilitate and give some semblance of hope to both victim and perpetrator.
One proposed legislation package in New York, the “Justice Roadmap,” supports a range of legal, community and social reforms, including eliminating predatory court fees and raising the age of juvenile delinquency, to address the inequities that plague the criminal justice and prison systems. This is not just wishful thinking. The Senate proved it can lead on prison reform when it passed the HALT Act in March, limiting solitary confinement to 15 days. Senate leaders can use this momentum to learn what really happened in our prison system in the past year.
I’m speaking here as a citizen, but also as a Christian and a pastor. You certainly don’t need to be a person of faith to advocate prison reform. But those of us who do follow Jesus Christ would do well to remember that we worship a man who died an unjust death within a broken criminal justice system, just as my parishioner did.
Steven Paulikas (@stevenpaulikas) is an Episcopal priest and rector of All Saints’ Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn.