On Monday morning, I received a frantic message from a man at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
“Lisa, this is crazy, a law library clerk just died,” wrote Bruce Bryant via JPay, an electronic mail system for people incarcerated at New York state prisons.
A few hours later, he added: “He was in isolation for a couple of weeks complaining about loss of breath, all they gave him was generic Tylenol, he supposedly had Covid 19, I think his name was Mosquero…It’s getting crazy, guys are really scared.”
The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) confirmed that Juan Mosquero, a 58-year-old incarcerated at Sing Sing in Ossining, New York, had died at approximately 7:43 a.m. on March 30, after having received emergency medical attention.
On Thursday, the Westchester County Medical Examiner confirmed that Mosquero had tested positive for COVID-19 ― the disease caused by the coronavirus. While the medical examiner has yet to determine the cause of death, if Mosquero’s death was tied to COVID-19, it would be the first fatality from the virus in a New York state prison.
At Sing Sing, men were already frightened before the death. On Sunday evening, Bryant called me to say he’d heard that someone who worked in the mess hall had tested positive for COVID-19. He feared the virus would quickly spread because even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended mitigation strategies for correctional facilities similar to those it has for the rest of the country — “Implement social distancing strategies to increase the physical space between incarcerated/detained persons (ideally 6 feet between all individuals, regardless of the presence of symptoms)” — there is no way to do so in prison.
Now, people inside Sing Sing, like others detained around the country, are desperate for both more protection and more information. They know the coronavirus pandemic is spreading in the U.S. broadly and in the prison system. The death was a reminder of just how dire the problem is, and how little they can do about it.
On Monday evening, according to several men at Sing Sing, Superintendent Michael Capra shared information about Mosquero’s death with the prison population. He said Mosquero had died of flu-like symptoms, and that the cause of death would be determined by the medical examiner’s office.
Bryant’s cell is on the level below Mosquero’s, and he said when officers came to remove Mosquero’s belongings, “They had on full gowns, boots wrapped up and everything. If he didn’t have the virus, why were they dressed like that?”
DOCCS would not respond to questions about Mosquero’s illness and treatment, in accordance with HIPAA, as of Wednesday, when this story was initially published.
As of Wednesday morning, 147 of the department’s approximately 29,000 employees had contracted COVID-19 statewide, according to DOCCS. Seventeen of the approximately 43,000 individuals incarcerated in New York state prisons had also tested positive for the virus. DOCCS did not provide numbers for COVID-19 cases specifically at Sing Sing, but Dorian Moore, the inmate grievance representative at the prison, said that during a meeting with Capra, the superintendent said that 50 staff members are currently out sick, 22 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19. Two civilian employees and one incarcerated person have also tested positive.
After his death, word spread throughout Sing Sing that Mosquero had died of COVID-19.
Jermaine Archer worked in the Sing Sing law library with Mosquero. They were considered essential workers, and were still reporting to work every day.
Mosquero “was funny, kind hearted, quick witted (even with limited english) and hardworking,” Archer wrote on JPay. “He was the porter, and when all of this began he made sure to bleach everything down as soon as we got there.”
Archer said that according to friends who work in the infirmary, Mosquero was quarantined there on March 20.
Moore, 49, confirmed via JPay that Mosquero had been in the infirmary for about 10 days, and said he was told by people who work there that Mosquero had been having difficulty breathing and was given aspirin.
One advocate outside the prison said that Mosquero had been denied medical treatment on three occasions for his symptoms, according to someone within the facility. Another advocate told me that a friend at Sing Sing said he’d shared his own personal medication with Mosquero, who was not being given anything by prison staff.
Struggling To Remain Safe
The anxiety in prisons has been heightened in part because of the lack of information from official channels, which means that those incarcerated at Sing Sing and other facilities often rely on information passed amongst themselves.
Taverial Norman, 43, said that at Franklin Correctional Facility in Malone, New York, fights have broken out over men coughing within enclosed spaces.
“The anxiety is kicking in because the facility doesn’t let us know anything,” he said.
Norman said he and others in his dormitory watched as a building next to theirs was set up as a quarantine unit, but said that corrections officers go from that building into the rest of the facility. He said an officer who had been working in the quarantine dormitory had also been working in his dormitory for a few days, fell ill, and then, according to information Norman said came from officers, was told he shouldn’t go to work on Tuesday.
Norman had tuberculosis as a child and now has chronic bronchitis, high blood pressure and other illnesses that would make him highly susceptible to COVID-19.
“I literally stay in my cube under my covers basically the whole day,” he said, though even then it is difficult to stay 6 feet away from others in a dormitory shared with approximately 50 other men.
Norman’s wife, Keziah, said that in earlier conversations Norman said his hands were constantly shaking, he hadn’t eaten and was unable to sleep. She is especially worried, because her cousin works at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, where she has seen firsthand the refrigerated trucks filled with bodies that the packed morgue cannot hold.
The couple have argued because Keziah has told her husband he shouldn’t leave his dormitory, even to make food.
“We had a huge argument because I told him, ‘You can’t cook right now. You have to eat out of a can,’ and he said, ‘I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in a week,’” she said. “I know I’m really not patient right now, but with the spike in cases overnight in New York, it’s like I can’t even breathe.”