In late September, CHLP joined several civil rights groups on an amicus brief in support of a petition for writ of habeas corpus seeking the release of a 63-year-old transgender woman from Eastern Correctional Facility, a men’s prison in Ulster County, New York, due to the risk that COVID-19 poses to her health. The woman, Cathy Citro has multiple chronic health conditions, including diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure, that make her uniquely vulnerable to suffering severe illness if she were to be infected with COVID-19. Moreover, transgender inmates face discrimination in all aspects of incarceration including accessing medical care, and are at a higher risk of being the victims of violence, including sexual violence, than are cisgender inmates. Unfortunately, while the lower court agreed that there were serious concerns about her health in these circumstances, it held that habeas corpus relief was not available because her sentence had not expired.
This is a serious misinterpretation of the writ of habeas corpus, obviously if her sentence had expired she would have been released and therefore would not need to petition for habeas relief in the first place. On the contrary, habeas is the route by which release or other relief can be sought whenever conditions of imprisonment are unconstitutional, at whatever point that may occur during the incarcerated person’s sentence.
Citro's lawyers appealed this decision, and the case is currently before the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division - Third Department. The amicus brief, written by Cornell Professor Cynthia Grant Bowman on behalf of New York State law professors, major civil liberties and LGBT legal advocacy organizations, focuses on the availability of the writ of habeas corpus to remedy situations such as Citro's, where a pandemic has rendered prison conditions unconstitutional. It reviews the history of the writ of habeas corpus and its interpretation by federal courts.
In addition to the need to correct the court’s misinterpretation of the writ of habeas corpus and free Citro, this case shines light on the State's failure to adequately respond to COVID-19 in prisons, jails, and psychiatric centers, and its failure to develop a comprehensive decarceration plan regarding who needs to be released from the state prisons for their protection and their medical well-being.