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Imagine doing 25 years in prison: counting down 9,125 days, 219,000 hours until freedom. Finally, you reach the door to freedom but it is suddenly shut in your face — not because you did anything wrong while you were incarcerated, but because of a global pandemic.

Many inmates across the country were released early due to COVID-19, but many remained incarcerated. Prison programs are currently short-staffed or even closed because of the coronavirus, and it has been this way in New York since early March 2020. Many of these programs are necessary to qualify for early release, either for good behavior or because the parole board wants proof that inmates are improving themselves.

Many inmates’ release or parole dates have come and gone, but they are still locked up because prisons are not running these programs normally. The state’s response so far has been to keep them locked up until they complete the requirements even though they don’t know when the programs will return. This is what happened to “Mr. S.” 

Mr. S. is 62, originally from Livingston County, N.Y. and has been incarcerated since March 21, 1995. During his incarceration, he lost his father, brother, nephew, brother-in-law and last month, his aunt. He has limited family left. 

In November 2019, Mr. S went to the Time Allowance Committee (TAC), which reviews an incarcerated person’s good time, and it recommended “granting all good time due to acceptable disciplinary and satisfactory program adjustment.” But the recommendation was overridden because he hadn’t completed a program that had been running at minimal operation since the pandemic began. 

“I feel neutralized,” Mr. S. said when asked about the situation. “All of this was negated by someone who I’ve never met… they just read the paperwork and denied me.”

The exact same issue occurred with “Mr. P.” 

Mr. P is 30, from the Albany area, a father to a one-year old old daughter and a fiancée for five years. He suffers from numerous health issues and his thoughts are filled with his mother who is also experiencing serious health issues. 

Mr. P has been incarcerated since June 3, 2016 and TAC recommended no loss of good time for disciplinary reasons. But his program has also run at reduced operations since March 2020, making it extremely difficult for him to get the assignments he needed. His point of contact in the program said he would have completed the program if the shutdown had not happened.

“Buckle down, because you may be here until your max. date (June 3, 2022),” he was told. 

When asked about the situation, Mr. P said, “It makes me feel worthless that I cannot be there to help my fiancée support my daughter or support my sick mother.” 

The list of people in this unfortunate predicament goes on and on. “Mr. C,” is 49, from the Bronx, father of three daughters and one son. Mr. C has been down since July 19, 2000 and was advised by TAC that he “must reestablish in school and continue all other programs positively.” But when is school programming going to reopen? He continues to sit and wait. There is no question that this pandemic presents situations with no set plays in the playbook, but should that keep people from going home?

As the administration tries to hash everything out, parents are separated from their children, loved ones are dying, precious time is passing.These people have done everything they need to go home by their good time dates, so it deserves more than the typical, bureaucratic response of “We are doing everything we can.” 

This situation requires immediate action. Who is holding the state accountable for accurate and honest implementation of inmates’ releases? With the medical experts stating there may be a second wave of COVID-19, it is even more crucial to expedite this process.

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.

Paul Grossman

Paul Grossman is a writer incarcerated in New York.