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