On April 28, Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay, a woman incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, became the first woman in a New York state prison to die of COVID-19. While Benson-Seay’s story has come to expose varying forms of government and facility negligence—from the failure to release those who are most medically vulnerable to the inadequate testing of facility staff—women incarcerated at Bedford Hills say that conditions have yet to change and that lockdown procedures are posing additional threats to their safety and well-being.
As reported by Prism, accounts have emerged in recent weeks from women incarcerated at Bedford Hills alleging that the facility has been providing inadequate and irregular meals, sometimes serving no more than half a cup of milk as breakfast. However, in addition to this food scarcity, women inside are saying they are experiencing what amounts to solitary confinement through the 20-hour lockdowns that have been implemented since the onset of the pandemic.
According to Anna Adams, who has been incarcerated at Bedford Hills for four years, since April 15 the prison’s lockdown protocol has allowed 15 women at a time to be released from their cells for three hours, plus an additional hour for yard recreation. The restrictions aim to decrease the spread of COVID-19, but for those inside, it means spending 20 hours per day inside of a cell behind a locked steel door. Adams wrote to Prism using the prison email service and detailed what she has been experiencing.
“Being behind a locked door is horrifying,” wrote Adams. “When someone has a medical emergency, there is no way to alert staff. We have to wait for staff to make rounds so if I have an asthma attack, heart attack, stroke, slip and fall, seizure, I’m just as good as gone.”
Adams requested that the facility allow these women to leave their cell doors open given that they would still be practicing social distancing by remaining inside the cells. She said that both that request and a complaint that she filed through the facility’s grievance program were denied. Adams is now pivoting to launch an awareness-raising campaign from inside Bedford Hills called “No More Locked Doors.”
In addition to concerns about cell confinement, women in Bedford Hills are requesting that the facility test correctional staff more frequently. Adams argues that more robust testing would have prevented the virus from entering into Bedford Hills in the first place. She says that women inside have been exposed to COVID-19 from external staff at the commissary as well as staff from the DMV call center where women incarcerated at Bedford Hills have worked as operators.
Well-reported problems like lack of hygiene and sanitary products, tight living quarters, aging populations, and poor health care have allowed COVID-19 to spread like wildfire through correctional facilities. However, the concerns of women in Bedford Hills illuminate the factors that have compounded those issues and have made the infection rate of New York prisons skyrocket so much that over 65% of those tested inside have tested positive. Those factors include the constant influx of untested staff and the silencing of women inside—both by thick metal doors and unanswered grievances.
“Ninety-six percent of staff here turn a deaf ear because they feel we deserve the cruelty, we deserve to be locked in a box for whatever crimes they believe we committed,” wrote Adams. “The biggest problem here is no one has the mental capacity to separate professionalism from perceptions and personal views. Perceptions take the president over professionalism on a large scale. Getting what I’m ‘entitled’ to is like moving mountains.”