In a crisis—and absent any real leadership from the president—people love an authoritative man with a PowerPoint.
That explains, partially, the surge of popularity New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is experiencing. As the leader of the state that is currently the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S., he exhibits the sort of governance people seem to want: His instructions are clear and simple, he speaks loudly and clearly and usually with some semblance of competence and common sense. His PowerPoints are meme-able, and he and his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo love to temper their “tell-it-like-it-is” personas with talk about their mom and being Italian. And Andrew Cuomo has one of those dimple chins that some folks are really into.
But make no mistake: Gov. Cuomo is playing with people’s lives—even in the midst of a pandemic.
Even as the governor is pushing the state to ramp up its hospital capacity, away from the cameras, he’s been trying to take an axe to Medicaid funding in New York, a move that could cost the Empire State $6.7 billion in desperately-needed federal relief funding. Medicaid money is essential for public hospitals that primarily serve low-income residents in New York City, and for the state’s rural communities.
“It’s obscene,” State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Senate Health Committee, told the Nation. “These are immoral actions that the governor is taking.”
But the governor’s maliciousness doesn’t stop there. He’s proposed a massive bail reform reversal that would take a powder keg—the vulnerability of New York’s jails and prisons to coronavirus outbreaks—and throw a Molotov cocktail on it.
The current state law forbids cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felony offenses—as Slate explains, judges may still incarcerate thousands of people pre-trial, but they’re typically accused of felonies.
Cuomo’s proposal would “dramatically expand judges’ ability to ‘remand’ defendants or to detain them indefinitely before their trial without due process protections,” Slate writes. Pretrial detention would also apply to a wider range of offenses: it would permit judges to evaluate the future “dangerousness” of defendants (basically, guess how likely they will be to commit another violent crime—something the state has never allowed judges to do while setting bail); and allow the courts to remand people who commit misdemeanor offenses while awaiting trial, meaning someone who shoplifts from a pharmacy could face indefinite pretrial detention.
The plan would make closing jails on Rikers Island nearly impossible. But more immediately, it increases the state’s carceral capacity at a time when overcrowded jails pose a major public health risk because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Slate breaks it down this way:
New York City jails may actually be the most dangerous place in America as far as the coronavirus is concerned. On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that almost 180 people incarcerated at Rikers and 141 corrections staff were infected with the coronavirus. The infection rate in New York City jails is more than seven times higher than the rate for all New York City residents and at least 75 times higher than the rate for all Americans. Rikers does have an infectious disease unit with 88 beds, but the unit has no ventilators for incarcerated patients, and the jail’s chief physician estimates that about 20 percent of incarcerated people with the virus will need hospitalization, and 5 percent will need ventilators. Incarcerated people are also fundamentally unable to practice social distancing; one incarcerated woman told NY1 that dormitory beds weren’t even 6 feet apart.
This is a danger both to the people behind bars, and those who are far removed from them.
As David E. Patton, head of the federal public defender’s office in New York City told the New York Times recently: “By keeping more people in the jails, you are increasing the overall number of people who contract the virus.” Demand for hospital beds will spike, as well [as] ventilators and other increasingly limited lifesaving resources.
“They are playing roulette with people’s lives,” he said.
In a statement shared with The Root, Clarise McCants, Criminal Justice Campaign Director at Color Of Change, responded to Cuomo’s efforts to roll back the state’s bail reform law:
“What Governor Cuomo is proposing will send legally innocent people into jails to die. With the horrific conditions we’re seeing at jails across the state, anything but getting people out of those cages is a death sentence,” McCants said. “You cannot go on TV and act like a hero by day, and put black and brown people’s lives at risk by night. You cannot say you’re fighting for us all to survive this pandemic by day, and threaten government shutdown so that you can put thousands [of] more people in jails by night.”
McCants emphasized that bail reform measures in the state had been working: “It’s the only reason the crisis at Rikers Island isn’t worse and thousands of people are safely home instead of trapped inside of a dirty, crowded, and disease-ridden jail.” She urged New York to pass a “clean budget” that leaves bail reform alone, “and stop playing political chess with people’s lives.”
That appears to be exactly what Cuomo—who, as The Nation reminds us, helped shepherd more than 10 years’ worth of hospital closures and consolidations—is doing.
Everyone wants a hero in a time of crisis. But while Cuomo has certainly been willing to play the part (convincingly enough that a few folks even want him to run for president), what he’s done away from the cameras is telling: using $2/hour prison labor to rebottle hand sanitizer, refusing to release elderly and sick incarcerated persons from Rikers Island, and slashing Medicaid rather than raising taxes on the 0.01 wealthiest New Yorkers. These aren’t the sorts of measures that would save lives in this crucial moment, and they certainly won’t prevent future crises from happening.
But hey, the PowerPoints are great.