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‘Hundreds’ of Prisoners Approved for Early Release Stuck Behind Bars as COVID Spikes

State prisoner Richard Ramos, left, is hoping to be reunited with family after becoming eligible for early release after qualifying as vulnerable to COVID-19.
State prisoner Richard Ramos, left, is hoping to be reunited with family after becoming eligible for early release after qualifying as vulnerable to COVID-19.
Courtesy of Ramos Family

Richard Ramos, who has been behind bars for the past two years, fears he’ll never see his father alive again.

Ramos, 56, is eligible for early release from Wallkill Correctional Facility based on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spring initiative to reduce the state prison population to cut down on COVID-19 spread.

In 2018, the Staten Island resident was convicted of two burglary felonies and sentenced to four-to-eight years. He was recently granted a “merit release” by a parole board for reaching a series of good behavior benchmarks.

That qualified him to be freed on Nov. 14 as part of the governor’s pandemic-related push to let people imprisoned on non-violent, non-sex offenses out within 90 days of their approved release date.

But he remains locked up as his case is reviewed by prison officials.

Ramos is just one of an estimated hundreds of people still behind bars even though they meet the early release criteria, according to the Legal Aid Society, which is representing him.

“It’s likely in the neighborhood of hundreds of people whose release is getting delayed,” said Lawrence Hausman, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

For Ramos, the delay has been especially difficult because his father, Eddie Ramos, 90, was recently admitted to Staten Island University Hospital with breathing problems.

The elder Ramos’ condition has been gradually deteriorating, according to family members. The inmate’s mother, Carmen, also 90, has also been struggling with medical issues, according to the family.

“They’re both very, very ill,” said Richard Ramos’ wife, Laura. “They’re waiting for him to come. They need him more than ever.”

Ramos got sick with COVID-19 in August while behind bars — yet he hasn’t seen a doctor or another medical staffer in months, according to his wife.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision can’t comment on an individual’s health record, said spokesperson Thomas Mailey.

COVID Cases Up in Prisons

The cumulative number of COVID-19 cases nearly doubled in DOCCS facilities in just over two weeks in October, according to state figures.

As of Nov. 20, 1,713 prisoners had tested positive for the virus, DOCCS reports.

Mailey declined to disclose the total number of people who have passed their potential early release dates, how the department reviews each case, and who ultimately decides who is sprung.

In general, all prisoners displaying COVID-19 symptoms are immediately isolated and tested, he said. If a positive case is confirmed, a contact trace is conducted and those identified are quarantined and tested, he added.

But DOCCS has struggled to recruit medical staff, and had more than 300 openings as of April, THE CITY reported. Prison officials have temporarily transferred nurses and doctors to hotspots throughout the pandemic, according to the unions that represent those positions.

The Cuomo administration notes it has released thousands of people due to the pandemic.

There were 35,492 people in state prisons as of Nov. 23, according to DOCCS. That’s 8,500 fewer than on Jan. 1 and the lowest population since 1986.

In total, 3,147 people had been released early due to COVID-19 as of Nov. 22, according to state prison officials. That includes 791 individuals whose low-level parole violations were cancelled.

Another 2,344 people let go had been imprisoned on non-violent, non-sex offenses and were within 90 days of their approved release date. A dozen women who were pregnant or postpartum with similar low-level offenses and within 180 days of their approved release date were also freed.

‘Delays are Troubling’

That’s little solace to Jorge Santiago and his family.

Santiago, 58, from The Bronx, is serving a three-to-six-year prison term for grand larceny. He was granted parole earlier this year and became eligible for early COVID-19 release on Oct. 24, records show

But Santiago, who suffers from severe asthma, remains locked up in Wallkill as his case is reviewed.

“There’s no social distancing there,” said his wife, Brenda Negron. “I’m scared that someone will call me and tell me he passed away.”

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy released more than 2,000 prisoners earlier this month due to COVID-19 concerns.

Supporters of people locked up and criminal justice experts are urging Cuomo to take a similar step — or at least follow up on his original plan.

“It’s not a sweeping or dramatic plan but it’s important and at the very least he should be living up to it,” Legal Aid’s Hausman said. “And so that’s why the delays are troubling for us.”

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