This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.
On Tuesday evening, Francisco Hernandez returned to his cell, put up the state-issued blanket he uses as a curtain, and wept. A few hours earlier, word had traveled through Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, that Ramon Escobar, who’d been housed 11 cells away from Hernandez, had died of COVID-19.
The Westchester County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that Escobar died of COVID-19. Escobar’s was the fourth COVID-19 death at the prison and the seventh in the New York state prison system as a whole, according to New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) data.
Hernandez, 48, wept not just because he’d lost a friend but because it’s how he falls asleep most nights. For the past two weeks, his mother, Antonia McCarthy, has been at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, sedated and intubated, fighting her own battle against the novel coronavirus. Hernandez’s mother is a paraplegic, having been injured in a shooting decades ago. She has numerous health issues and was initially admitted to the hospital in February with sepsis from a bone infection. Hernandez was afraid COVID-19 would kill her.
Hernandez said he wrote the superintendent of the prison asking if there was some way to see his mother, if even through a video visit. He said he never received a response. He also wrote lawyers and advocates at Prisoners Legal Services of New York (PLS-NY) and Release Aging People in Prison to see if they could help.
When Hernandez was imprisoned 20 years ago for assault and attempted murder, he promised his mother he would change and would make it out of prison to help his sister to care for their mother. He completed a number of educational and other programs and said that in the past decade he has maintained a relatively clean disciplinary record, with only minor infractions. (DOCCS did not immediately respond to a request for Hernandez’s records.)
“I wanted to achieve that goal of coming home and doing everything I said I was going to do,” said Hernandez, who has three years left until his release date. “But now this virus happened, and I feel I swam oceans only to drown at the shore.”
As COVID-19 spreads in prisons and jails, Hernandez and others inside say they are facing a system that is doing too little to protect them and are also frantic that they can’t do anything to protect their loved ones from the virus that has killed more than 16,100 people across New York state.
“I’ve never been so afraid of anything in my life, and believe me, fear wasn’t something embedded in me growing up,” Hernandez said.
At the prison, Hernandez is surrounded by reminders of the virus, both in the work he has been assigned and the work he chooses to do. He works in the intake area, processing the belongings of men coming into the prison and those leaving. As such, he has had to sort through the contents of the cells of men who have died of COVID-19.
The items are spread out on a table, and officers tell Hernandez which items to save — mainly photographs, letters and legal paperwork — so that they can be sent to family members. Everything else, now just the detritus of decades spent in prison, is thrown away.
“It was sad how these fellow inmates’ entire life was being thrown out into the garbage,” Hernandez said. “You think about what you’re doing, and most of the time it goes through your head, ‘How about if this is me next time?’”
Watching As The Death Toll Rises
When Hernandez returns to his cell in the evenings, he hand-sews masks. He has made about 36 so far from state-issued handkerchiefs, T-shirts and the elastic cut from underwear.
Hernandez and his neighbor Bruce Bryant initially wanted to send the masks to health care workers, but Hernandez said they didn’t receive a response from the superintendent about how they could get the masks to hospitals. So, he started giving them to other men at the prison.
Initially, the men at Sing Sing were not allowed to cover their faces at all. “We do not have access to hand sanitizers, nor masks. Everyone else in the world are wearing masks, except us prisoners as if our right to be free from disease and infections, our right to live does not matter,” wrote one man at Sing Sing to his attorney, Steven Zeidman, two weeks ago.
Now the men can cover their faces with handkerchiefs issued by the prison, but many say it’s hard to keep those in place, which has created a need for the masks Hernandez makes.
Hernandez watches the news as he sews.
“Reality sinks in from being distracted back to Mom,” he said. “Can’t stop focusing on the number of the death toll and always wonder every time it rises if Mom is within it.”
It was Antonia McCarthy who taught Hernandez to sew. She was 18 when she had him, and when he was 2, she divorced his father and moved from Puerto Rico to New York City. Antonia didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak English. Hernandez remembers moving from shelter to shelter until his mother got an apartment and a sewing job at a factory. She had to work double shifts to make ends meet, and she often left Hernandez alone in their apartment in the Bronx.
“I was maybe 4 or 5, and always before leaving she used to tell me, ‘Francisco, don’t make no noise, don’t open the door and ‘specially don’t turn the stove on. If you need to eat something, I made you P and J sandwiches with your sippy cup. You do that and I will bring you a Snickers bar in the morning,’” Hernandez said. “I did that righteously, and in the morning I had my favorite chocolate bar by my pillow.”
Antonia eventually remarried, had two more children, Josephine and Joseph, but then got divorced. She and the children lived in an apartment in the South Bronx. For Hernandez’s 10th birthday, Antonia held a party in the lobby of the building. Hernandez was ecstatic, running through the building with his friends, holding a $5 bill he’d been given as a gift. When he got back down to the lobby, he saw people running out of the building and gathered in a crowd by the corner store. He crawled between people’s legs and saw his mother lying on the ground. She’d been caught in an altercation between two men and struck by a stray bullet.
“I immediately started screaming and crying,” Hernandez said. “She was just there looking at me, not crying or even in pain, to my recollection, and said, ‘Francisco, why are you crying? You’re 10 years old, and big boys don’t cry.’”
Hernandez said he continued to cry hysterically because the blood wouldn’t stop flowing from the wound in her neck. He used his $5 bill to try to make the bleeding stop.
Hernandez said the trauma of the event and the immediate aftermath set him on the course that led to prison. Again, he was on his own, this time left to care for his younger siblings because his mother was hospitalized for months. She underwent several surgeries as the bullet had shattered her collar bone, ricocheted and become wedged in her spine, paralyzing her from the waist down.
“I remember for the first month or so being alone with them in the apartment, just Mom’s friends and neighbors watching over us. I was terrified when the light bill wasn’t paid and they cut the lights off,” he said.
Eventually, Hernandez was sent to Puerto Rico to live with his maternal aunt and grandmother, and his siblings went to live with their father. They did not see each other for several years.
Hernandez said he acted out and didn’t do well in school in part because he blamed himself for the fact that his mother had been shot and paralyzed by the bullet that is still lodged in her spine.
“I never asked for a big party; as a matter of fact, I was happy with the fudge chocolate Pepperidge Farm [cookies] and pint of ice cream we used to eat on the kitchen floor,” said Hernandez, referring to how he and his mother would spend his birthdays in their first few years in New York. “A day that’s supposed to be happy for me had turned into my worst nightmare. How can I forgive myself?”
Hernandez was initially incarcerated in Puerto Rico, when he was 19. He eventually moved back to New York City and had a daughter, Shamira, whom he gave to his sister, Josephine, to raise. He says he started taking heroin and other drugs due to depression, and in October 2002, he was convicted for using a razor to cut his girlfriend and her boss, with whom he said she was having an affair, after he said the boss, another man and his girlfriend attacked him.
Hernandez said he has matured in prison. “It’s been a lot of years in a 4-by-10 space doing the same thing over and over and again and again,” he said. “I’m 48, going on 49 years old this year, and I am at the point that I’m not the mean kid growing up no more.”
Desperate To Say Goodbye
On Thursday morning, a doctor called Hernandez’s sister, Josephine McCarthy, to say that, although they had lowered sedation levels in the hopes that Antonia could be revived, they could not detect any brain activity.
Josephine said her mother was vibrant — she cooked, cleaned and took great pride in decorating her apartment.
“There were times me and [my brother] Joey would get her dressed and take her in her wheelchair to the nightclub Salsa con Fuego,” Josephine said. “We would have dinner and she would dance in her chair and move her arms.”
Josephine called a family meeting on Thursday night, and she decided not to proceed with keeping Antonia alive with a tracheostomy and feeding tube.
Hernandez’s daughter, Shamira, 28, says her grandmother would not want to live that way.
“The agony is killing all of us slowly,” Shamira said. “I want, if she is going to die, for her to do it in a way that is going to be good for her, not good for us. I want her to go out decently.”
A DOCCS spokesperson said on Thursday that Hernandez’s request for a video visit with his mother had not been received but that the facility also doesn’t have the technology to accommodate such a request. DOCCS has allowed for three free 30-minute phone calls and five free stamps per week on the electronic messaging system JPay, so that incarcerated people can remain in contact with family members, given the pandemic.
On Friday, Prisoners Legal Services of New York, the advocacy group Hernandez had written for help, received his letter and contacted the prison to try to arrange for him to call his mother.
“It was my understanding that they were going to try to accommodate his request, but now, based upon what they’ve been told, it doesn’t seem as if his mother would know,” said PLS-NY Executive Director Karen Murtagh. “We were told by the facility that his sister called and said their mother was brain dead and was going to be taken off the ventilator. They said they would take him out of his cell so he could grieve.”
“I’m just afraid of Mom dying and not being able to see her before she goes underground.”
Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said at a press conference Thursday that the state hasn’t seen the kind of outbreak in prison officials had feared ― according to DOCCS, 269 of the approximately 43,000 people incarcerated in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. She said previously that DOCCS has begun the process of releasing those 55 or older who have 90 days or less remaining on their sentence, and whose initial crime was not a violent felony or sex offense. The governor’s office did not respond to inquiries about what would happen in cases of other people seeking early release.
Hernandez is not saying he deserves to be released early — “I committed a crime, and there was a victim involved,” he said. He just wants to see his mother one last time.
“The only thing I ask is to keep Mom alive or to allow me to see her just for 10 minutes,” he said. “After that, they can bring me back to prison and put me under it or send me to the moon for all I care. I’m just afraid of Mom dying and not being able to see her before she goes underground.”
Hernandez was, according to a friend and Josephine, distraught when Josephine called the prison on Thursday night to let him know she planned to have Antonia removed from life support. She asked the officer with whom she spoke if there was any way for Hernandez to leave the prison to see their mother. The officer said that due to the pandemic no one was being let off of the premises and that even she had a funeral that she could not attend.
“I wanted to prepare him,” said Josephine of the call with Hernandez. “He is not taking it very well. I told him to please try to keep calm and not try anything to hurt himself or do anything to jeopardize things and to just focus on getting home.”
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