I Spent 17 Years Wrongfully Incarcerated, Here’s Why I’m Worried About COVID-19 in Prisons

There is no way to “social distance” in prison.

04.01.20 By Martin Tankleff

Marty Tankleff at the steps of New York City Hall advocating for wrongful conviction reforms for New York. Photo by Sameer Abdel-Khalek/Innocence Project.

Marty Tankleff at the steps of New York City Hall advocating for wrongful conviction reforms for New York. Photo by Sameer Abdel-Khalek/Innocence Project.

At least 132 people incarcerated in New York City alone have tested positive for COVID-19, and dozens more cases have been confirmed across the country. And, as someone who was wrongfully incarcerated for almost 18 years in various New York State prisons, I can tell you firsthand the devastation that a virus like COVID-19 can deal to a prison where thousands are being held. 

There is no way to “social distance” in prison. There is no way to avoid contact with people — your next-door neighbor is inches away from you and is separated only by steel or concrete. The bars at the front of your cell do not protect you or give you any sense of isolation from people or the virus. So, if someone near you gets sick, the potential for you and possibly hundreds of others to fall ill is a real threat.

During a period of my incarceration, the norovirus, a very contagious virus that causes diarrhea and vomiting, started to infect society — at that time, it was known as “the cruise ship virus,” so no one in prison thought they could get it. Until it finally made its way into the prison.

The coronavirus is far more dangerous than the norovirus.

I was in a cellblock where hundreds of men caught the virus and were sick beyond imaginable proportions within a couple of weeks. There wasn’t much the medical department could do. They were quickly overwhelmed by the number of people complaining of their symptoms, on top of all the other medical issues that existed normally. All the prison could do was try to contain the virus’ spread by locking the cellblock down and trying to clean the area as best as possible until the virus ran its course. But norovirus is rarely deadly.

The coronavirus is far more dangerous than the norovirus. We know that COVID-19 is killing hundreds of people every day and spreading like wildfire. In the prison systems throughout our country, it is infecting prisoners and guards alike. 

I was released in 2007, and exonerated the following year. In society, I can social distance. I can self-isolate at home. Out here, in society, we can have food delivered, have telemedicine, medications and supplies delivered to our homes. But prisoners behind bars are at the mercy of their environment. If they are confined to their cells, and the guard or prisoner who delivers their food has COVID-19 but hasn’t been diagnosed, they are being exposed to the virus. Hundreds of prisoners could easily be infected in a short period of time this way, as we’re just beginning to see.

Groups like the Innocence Project, Justice Collaborative, Color of Change, Prison Policy Initiative and many other legal groups have issued memorandums, declarations and policy suggestions on ways to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in correctional facilities, such as prioritizing the release of the elderly and medically vulnerable, as well as people incarcerated for parole and technical violations. These groups have also advocated for jails and prisons to set up procedures to properly quarantine likely or confirmed COVID-19 cases, and for hand sanitizer to be declassified as contraband so it can be made available for free. However, it may be too late. 

As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a recent press conference, “We were looking at a freight train coming across the country — we’re now looking at a bullet train.”

In my opinion, that bullet train could kill hundreds of prisoners around the country, unless we act quickly.

This virus is taking a different kind of toll on everyone. For me, knowing what the conditions are like in prison, I feel for those incarcerated. The daily fear that the men and women who are currently behind bars must feel about being exposed while knowing they won’t receive proper medical care is surely taking a toll. 

That’s why now is the time to do the right thing — to take aggressive and essential action to save lives. I, and those who have shared my experience of being wrongfully convicted, pray that the powers that be will take every essential step to protect the lives of all those that live and work in prisons.

This article is written by guest contributor Martin Tankleff. Martin is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, Touro Law School and was recently admitted to the New York State Bar. He currently works at Metcalf & Metcalf, PC in Manhattan. He is also a nationally recognized exoneree.

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Frances Moose May 4, 2020 at 5:25 pm Reply   

What can I do to help my son? He has less than 8mos. to serve. Definitely not a threat to society. Has a home to come to where he could have confinement if need be. He has lung issues. I’m in my final stage of COPD and would benefit having him to help take care of me. Thank you for any suggestions.
Frances Moose

Brenda Hogue-trotter April 2, 2020 at 8:48 pm Reply   

My son is in Lexington in the R & something
He has been there for about 30 days
I’m worried because he can’t take just any antibiotics he started having a reaction. I’m do scared for him.
They have him for murder 1 and it was accidental. Please help Ryan Cortlan Johnson DOB: 04-28-1993