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How Do You Social Distance In Prison? You Don't. You Get COVID.

In crowded cells, where COVID is running rampant, appeals for clemency for thousands of prisoners have gone unanswered or flat-out rejected.

Posted on January 21, 2021, at 6:29 p.m. ET

People protest at a vigil outside a prison in New York
Johannes Eisele / Getty Images

A vigil outside the Queensboro Correctional Facility on April 23, 2020, in New York City.

In one of his last acts in office, former president Donald Trump issued a slew of pardons to his well-connected friends — from former campaign manager Steve Bannon to one of his leading fundraisers, Elliott Broidy. Even the rapper Lil Wayne made the list. But in crowded prison cells across the country — where COVID is running rampant — appeals for clemency for thousands of prisoners who have no such clout have gone unanswered or flat-out rejected.

One such person is Rodney Chandler, who has dedicated his two decades in prison to helping people. When he isn’t providing hospice care to dying inmates, he’s leading people who are visually impaired through the prison cafeteria or the yard as a certified mobility assistant. And when he isn’t tending to those dying or people with vision loss, he’s befriending members of the Deaf community, having learned sign language behind bars after he noticed “they don’t have anyone they can talk to. They’re alone.”

Yet for all his good deeds and days, his life has revolved around one day and one decision: the August 1998 day, when, at age 17, he shot a man during a fight at a dice game. Chandler was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the killing.

Now, 22 years later, Chandler has joined more than 2,500 other New York state inmates applying for clemency, a process by which governors can either erase a conviction or shorten a prisoner’s sentence. Chandler submitted his application to Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a time when criminal justice reform advocates are decrying an inequitable system that benefits the rich, but could be used to depopulate prisons ravaged by COVID-19 outbreaks. In New York alone, applications for clemency from those incarcerated in state prisons jumped roughly 80% from 2019 to 2020, according to data from the New York Department of Corrections. But Cuomo has granted very few.

Clemency Project / Via Vimeo

Rodney Chandler explains how he’s changed behind bars.

Clemency applications for those convicted of federal crimes are granted by the president, while state crimes — which put more than half of the 2.3 million people, including Chandler, behind bars — fall to the discretion of each state governor.

For many federal inmates who aren’t politically connected to the president, or state inmates with no sway with their governor, a pardon isn’t just about getting out of prison or having their sentence overturned, it’s literally a case of life and death. In crowded prisons, with little access to healthcare or the ability to socially distance, COVID-19 cases have exploded, with at least 1 in 5 inmates infected. A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that crowded jails and prisons led to more than half a million additional COVID-19 cases nationwide — or about 1 in 8 of all new cases — over the summer, including cases both inside and outside correctional facilities because the virus spreads via prison workers to the world beyond bars. At least 2,144 inmates and 146 corrections staff have died from the disease, according to data collected by the Marshall Project.

The governor or president can generally apply clemency in one of two ways. The first is a pardon, in which the person has generally completed a sentence and lived an exemplary life. Pardons typically erase a conviction from the person’s record. The second version is a commutation, in which a sentence is shortened or a person released, while still having a conviction on record.

Many jurisdictions, including the federal government, have staff or boards review applications and then pass them along to the governor or president for review. Some legal advocates have argued that this review system bogs down worthy applications with bureaucracy.

In New York State’s Wende Correctional Facility, inmate David Sell, who has served more than 20 years for second-degree murder, told BuzzFeed News that a recent outbreak of the coronavirus — at least 58 new cases since Jan. 6, according to New York State Department of Corrections data — has overwhelmed the prison’s isolation ward. Many of those infected are being sent back to their cells in general population, further exacerbating the problem, he said. Sell told BuzzFeed News he worries about the man in the cell next to him who has cancer and might not be healthy enough to recover from COVID-19.

“People don’t feel safe in prison,” Sell said. “Especially those with underlying conditions.”

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision issued a statement to BuzzFeed News saying Wende is using the Regional Medical Unit, as well as two housing blocks for isolation and quarantine. More than 100 inmates in quarantine were scheduled to be released from isolation today. Data shows New York State has the sixth-lowest COVID rate among its prison population nationwide. In South Dakota, 2 out of 3 inmates have tested positive — the worst rate in the nation. In Arkansas 3 in 5 inmates have tested positive, and there have been 51 deaths.

Experts in both prison reform and public health are calling for immediate action.

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the nonpartisan Prison Policy Institute, pointed out that people in prison are infected with COVID-19 at a rate four times higher than that of the general population and twice as likely to die from the disease.

“What that means is that people who were never sentenced to death are being killed by COVID-19,” Bertram said. “More people have been killed by COVID-19 in prisons than have been killed by the death penalty in like the last few decades, all over the country.”

Bertram pointed to a report published last month showing places with prisons record higher levels of community infection.

“This is a tragedy,” she said. “It’s something that governors and the federal government should have been dealing with a long time ago by doing whatever it is that they had to do to get huge numbers of people out.”

Public officials have been slow to use clemency powers, despite calls from the American Medical Association and other groups to reduce the prison population.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, last October signed a bill that allowed those with less than a year left of their sentences to be released up to eight months early. The policy meant that more than 2,000 of those incarcerated were released on one day, with up to 1,000 more expected over the coming months. In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt used his executive powers to release 450 people from prison. Connecticut has had a consistent reputation for a robust clemency program, approving 82% of its 1,592 applications in 2019.

In neighboring New York, Gov. Cuomo — with an Emmy for his COVID-19 press briefings and the plaudits he drew for his straight talk about the pandemic — has granted far fewer applications. Over the last four years, he’s granted clemency to 118 people out of more than 6,000 applicants — or 1.9%. Most of those have been pardons, with Cuomo granting 16 in the last four years.

Cuomo’s reluctant use of clemency has come as a shock to some legal advocates who saw the potential for a more robust process after the governor created a program in 2015 that paired those seeking clemency with pro bono attorneys who could help them fill out an application. Two years later, he expanded the program. With the aid of lawyers, applications increased; approval rates have not.

“What we’ve seen from Gov. Cuomo is exemplary of what I see coming from liberal governors across the country,” Bertram said. “There are people still in New York state prisons, who, by any rational means of imagination, have no reason to be there ... They project this value system that’s all about ... believing in a second chance and compassion and believing in science, including social science, and then turning around and allowing people who are in the most vulnerable time of their lives remain incarcerated during the deadliest time that you could possibly be imprisoned.”

Complicating petitions like Chandler’s is his crime. Nonviolent offenders and those with drug crimes have been the recipients of the most mercy under recent reform efforts, yet over 40% of the prison population is convicted of a crime considered violent.

“To limit the pool of candidacy for clemencies to exclusively drug offenses is shortsighted and exclusionary,” said Khalil A. Cumberbatch, a special adviser to New Yorkers United for Justice whom Cuomo pardoned in 2014. “It is also statistically proven people who serve longer sentences — i.e., those with violent convictions — recidivate at dramatically lower rates than those who serve shorter sentences. This further highlights the need to focus on rehabilitative factors of an individual, and not solely the type of conviction they have.”

With the odds stacked against clemency, Chandler continues providing as much assistance to others as the pandemic precautions will allow. In a video that was produced by students at Bard College and the City University of New York to supplement clemency applications, Chandler looks into the camera, expressing his remorse and explaining his redemption.

“Taking a life from Anthony Thomas was irreparable,” he says in the recording. “To a certain extent, I live my life doing some type of service ... to make amends for the wrong I’ve done in my life.”

As the video — and Chandler’s plea — comes to an end, he looks to the camera. He silently thanks Cuomo in sign language, hoping the governor will listen.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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