The staff of Prisoners’ Legal Services is extremely concerned about the health and safety of everyone in DOCCS custody during this pandemic. PLS, other prisoners’ rights advocacy organizations and Legislators have been in regular contact with DOCCS, the Board of Parole and Governor Cuomo’s office about our concerns, particularly with respect to reducing the prison population by selectively releasing people who are close to their release dates, medically compromised or in custody due to technical parole violations:
Letters to Governor:
Letters to Board of Parole:
Letters to DOCCS:
Letters to EOIR and Batavia:
In New York, Governor Cuomo, through clemency grants, has the power to release sentenced individuals in DOCCS custody. PLS has therefore urged the Governor’s office to follow the lead of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Governors who issued Executive Orders mandating the release of certain categories of individuals from prison. PLS is also working closely with various Legislators to advocate for the release of vulnerable at-risk individuals. This approach appears to be working. In March and April, DOCCS released 760 technical parole violators and in mid- April, began releasing non-violent felony offenders who are 55 years of age or older and within 90 days of a release date and pregnant women who had not been convicted of violent crimes and were within six months of release. On May 6, the governor’s office reported that the state was expanding eligibility for release and would begin releasing individuals with 90 days or less on their sentence and whose underlying crime was not a sex offense or a violent felony, regardless of age.
Due to the danger of widespread Covid-19 infection in prisons, there have been numerous lawsuits in state and federal courts seeking the release of prisoners serving sentences imposed by state court judges. To date, the lawsuits have not led to the release of any state sentenced prisoner. The reasoning used by these courts to deny relief varies, but is rooted generally in various procedural and substantive legal hurdles. Lawsuits seeking more tailored relief, for example the release of pre-trial detainees and people charged with technical parole violations, have been more successful.
Our administrative advocacy efforts, however, do not preclude bringing a lawsuit down the road. As you all know, we are in uncharted, rapidly changing waters and, because of that, we are constantly re-evaluating the situation and closely watching what is happening in courts across the country. Our goal is to take whatever action we believe is the most likely to result in protecting, to the greatest extent possible, the health and safety of the incarcerated population.
We have also demanded that DOCCS take immediate measures to reduce the spread of the virus in the prisons by providing regular access to soap, clean towels, cleaning supplies, and hot water. We asked DOCCS to be more transparent in reporting COVID-19 cases within the prison and urged DOCCS to create a COVID-19 dedicated webpage to provide detailed and updated information related to COVID-19. On April 10, DOCCS went live with its COVID-19 webpage. See: https://doccs.ny.gov/doccs-covid-19-report
Posted on DOCCS’ COVID-19 website is a listing, updated daily, of COVID-19 positive cases for incarcerated individuals, parolees and DOCCS staff. More recently, in response to pressure from PLS and other prisoners’ rights advocates, DOCCS began providing information on the spread of the virus within each prison. The information on incarcerated individuals includes the number of prisoners tested, the number of positive and negative test results, the number of prisoners who have died and the number prisoners who have recovered.
Reducing the Spread of the Virus:
On May 6, DOCCS began providing all incarcerated individuals with surgical-type masks to further reduce the risk of secondary transmission of COVID-19. Correction officers, parole officers and civilian staff are required to wear masks while on duty.
According to its website, DOCCS continues to implement enhanced cleaning/sanitizing measures and disinfecting procedures for office surfaces and devices consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York State Department of Health guidelines.
In addition, DOCCS uses the protocol below for reducing the spread of the virus:
To further reduce the spread of COVID-19 DOCCS has taken the following steps:
On May 12, 2020 DOCCS has posted the following updates extending Visitation restriction:
Continued suspension of all visitation, including the Family Reunion Program, through June 1, 2020.
Enhancements to the free services previously offered as follows:
Phone Calls - Each incarcerated individual will continue to receive three (3) free, up to thirty minute calls per week, through Saturday, June 6, 2020. Free calls are available beginning at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday and are associated with the first three calls made during each week, but unused calls do not carry forward from week to week;
Secure Message Stamps - Each incarcerated individual with access to a general confinement tablet and kiosk will continue to receive two (2) free stamps to use for secure messaging per week through Saturday, June 6, 2020. Stamps are added to your account on Friday afternoon and do not accumulate and replenish on a weekly basis based on use; and
Free Pre-paid Reply Wednesdays - Every secure message sent by a friend or family member on a Wednesday, will be accompanied with a free pre-paid stamp that will allow the incarcerated individual to reply to the sender, through Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
Free movies each week - The vendor will continue to make all four movies available at one time and have extended access through June 6, 2020. The four free movies are:
Free games each week - Similar to the movies, the vendor will continue to make all four games available at one time and have extended access through June 6, 2020. The four free games are:
Newsstand application - There is no change for the access. Beginning May 1, 2020, you will receive a free month's subscription to the Newsstand application. The Newsstand application allows you access to local and world news, sports, and other current events. You must update your tablet to receive the Newsstand app and subscribe to the service before you can download updates. Updates will be available daily via the kiosk.
The Department will also continue to make (5) free stamps available to the population for general correspondence.
As were previously outlined, there are simple steps that should be followed to stop the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses as follows:
The Department takes seriously its duty to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those that work, and live in our correctional facilities, as well as those who supervise or are supervised in the greater community of New York. During this difficult time, the Department is appreciative of everyone's patience and understanding as we continue to face this virus together.
As you know, DOCCS suspended all personal visits on March 14, 2020. In place of visits, DOCCS is providing:
Starting Wednesday, April 15, 2020, for four (4) consecutive Wednesdays, every secure message sent by a friend or family member on Wednesday will be accompanied with a free pre-paid stamp that will allow the incarcerated individual to reply to the sender, through May 6, 2020.
We have urged DOCCS to expand further access to stamps, emails, and phone calls during the suspension of visits. Specifically, we have called upon DOCCS to provide unlimited postage, emails and phone calls without charge.
General Population Tablet Program
On April 27, DOCCS expanded the offerings to the incarcerated population to include
Beginning Friday, May 1, incarcerated individuals will receive a free month's subscription to the vendor’s Newsstand application. The Newsstand provides access to local and world news, sports and current events. The tablet must be updated to receive the Newsstand application and to subscribe to the service. Daily updates are available via kiosks.
Changes in State Statutes of Limitations and Court Filing Deadlines:
On March 20, 2020, New York Governor Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.8. The terms of this order were extended on April 7 and 16 and again on May 6. This Executive Order tolled (stopped the clock running) on all state court filing deadlines, including state statutes of limitations, currently through midnight on June 6, 2020.
This suspension includes any state statute of limitation for commencing actions that are set by Criminal Procedure Law, the Family Court Act, the Civil Practice Law and Rules, the Court of Claims Act, the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act, and the Uniform Court Acts, or by any other statute, local law, ordinance, order, rule, or regulation.
Example: On March 20, you received a decision on a Tier III appeal. The four-month statute of limitation on your Article 78 would normally begin running on March 20. Due to the suspension of statutes of limitation, the clock stopped running on that deadline on March 20 and will recommence running on June 6, 2020. Thus, in the example, you will have 4 months from June 6, within which to file an Article 78 petition. In effect, the period during which all these deadlines are tolled does not count toward your deadline.
In addition, if you try to commence a lawsuit in the state courts before June 6, with limited exceptions, it will likely be rejected.
On March 22, Lawrence Marks, the Chief Administrative Judge of Unified Court System issued an Administrative Order providing that only “essential” filings will be accepted for filing at this time. See list of Essential Proceedings, below. On April 7, 2020, the Chief Administrative Judge announced that to a limited extent, judges can resume processing already filed non-essential cases. Judge Marks noted that all conferences and appearances will be conducted remotely, that is, using video-conferencing. He anticipated that with respect to non-essential cases, judges will now decide fully submitted motions and conduct conferences to address discovery disputes and other matters that will be helpful in advancing the progress of a case. On May 1, Judge Marks announced that effective May 4, in pending matters, both essential and non-essential, courts will:
On May 4, 2020, the Unified Court System implemented the Electronic Document Delivery System (EDDS) for delivery and filing of documents in place of paper filing throughout the New York State court system during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
For more information:
Other helpful links:
WELCOME TO PRISONERS' LEGAL SERVICES OF NY
Anatomy of A Riot (Click on image to view)
Posted 3/25/2020, Edited 5/22/2020
Promoting justice, fair treatment and humane conditions since 1976.
For an overview of the reasons why PLS was created and insight into why an organization like PLS is vital to New York State's system of criminal and civil justice, take 15 minutes to watch the short film : Anatomy of a Riot.
Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS) is a non-profit legal services organization founded in 1976 to provide indigent incarcerated New Yorkers access to the courts.
There are over 51,000 individuals incarcerated in 54 prisons across New York State and PLS responds to more than 10,000 requests for assistance annually.
Our mission is to provide high quality, effective legal representation and assistance to indigent prisoners, to help them to secure their civil and human rights, and to advocate for humane prisons and for a more humane criminal justice system.