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Photo by  Clay Banks  on  Unsplash
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

My TV has been on almost continually for the past 24 hours as I sit and watch, riveted by the election returns on the screen. At 11:24 a.m., Saturday, November 7, 2020, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer announced Joe Biden as the president-elect of the United States.

Here at Sing Sing, in A Block, the men erupted into cheers and applause over the Biden/Harris win. None of us voted; we can’t vote. We are legally disenfranchised. Most of us feel like we had a stake in the race nevertheless. Our immediate gain is the restoration of hope and promise. Hope and promise for our loved ones and our own future aspirations as citizens in the larger society.

Economics, race, social justice, health and just plain old human decency were on the ballot. We all have family and friends who’ve been infected, sickened or died from the coronavirus. We all know someone who has lost their job and is struggling to make ends meet because of the pandemic’s economic fallout. We’ve had a Black president, and now a Black female vice president can be construed as a repudiation of the racist and misogynistic policies and ideas proliferating over the last four years of the Trump presidency.

As the excitement calms down, the constants of our existence come sharply back into focus and sit smugly over everything. There were more than 126,000 coronavirus infections across America in the past 24 hours. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reports testing prisoners parallel to testing in all communities in the state. There is a deep skepticism about that.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been factual disparities in coronavirus reporting by the NYSDOCCS on their website. Governor Cuomo reports doing tens of thousands of tests daily in the state. If that is true, then all New York State prisoners should have been tested long ago. Here at Sing Sing, only people presenting symptoms or those who are 55 years of age or older have been tested for the coronavirus as of this writing.

Last Tuesday prisoners were informed that beginning November 9, 2020, programs would be suspended for a week to conduct coronavirus testing of all prisoners at Sing Sing. The collective reaction among the population was, “They should have tested us months ago, when we were sick.” We all know that a confluence of events moved the ball on testing forward. Elmira and Greene Correctional Facilities are reportedly locked down due to severe outbreaks of COVID-19 infecting both prisoners and staff. Spikes have been reported in other New York Prisons as well. Memos have been issued mandating that prisoners wear masks once they leave their cells.

Governor Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.68, which employs a targeted approach to identify micro clusters and execute color-coded containment protocols throughout the state: red micro cluster zones; orange warning zones and yellow precautionary zones. That same approach is being implemented in all New York State prisons. Red and orange designations suspend visitation at a given facility.

The state has a total 18 COVID-19 fatalities since the first death of a New York prisoner occurred here on March 30, 2020. New York’s state prisons are doing better than most other states. News reports reveal that New Jersey, just across the Hudson, has experienced high levels of infections and deaths. California’s numbers are really bad. This insidiousness of this invisible monster requires proactive responses irrespective of inconveniences.

Other contentious coronavirus-related issues include unsuccessful prisoner-filed COVID-19 habeas corpus early release litigation filed in New York, and the political calculus of Governor Cuomo in the age of coronavirus with regard to what most prisoners believe are his centrist criminal justice policies (which are inconsistent with New York’s progressive agenda on most other social justice issues and policies).

The last issue is the overarching health and safety concerns of both prisoners and staff. The problem is that the medical bar is, and has been, set pretty low regarding prisoner health care (consultation, diagnosis and interventions and the slow, grinding bureaucracy between each step). One of the prominent social ills highlighted by the virus in America is the health care disparities when it comes to race and economics. Prisoner health care is at the lowest end of the quality spectrum. Quality health care is further demeaned by prisoners who cry wolf on the one end, and apathy and the lack of compassion on the other. Any of the above mentioned impediments can prove lethal.

Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done — on both sides of the wall. In spite of the mixed bag of issues I have presented, I will close with what I opened with: the restoration of hope and promise. I believe that in the halls of power, the new year will see America move forward in a way that realizes hope and makes good on the promises Americans make to Americans and America makes to the world.

For us here, nothing positive happens without marshalling those qualities in ourselves to see the task through to the outcomes we seek. I believe this is true for everyone everywhere who struggles for a life worth having — and life is a thing most worth having.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.