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Locked Up

Incarcerated New Yorkers Want to See the Eclipse. The State Has Responded With a Lockdown

"I don't believe that just because I am incarcerated that I should be denied this opportunity."

Attica Correctional Facility. (wikicommons)

As a kid, Jeremy Zielinski could often be found in the basement of his home at what he now jokingly calls his "mad scientist bench." Using an old microscope, he marveled at the tiny universe that could be found in a drop of water from a local stream or mud puddle. He regularly disassembled broken electronics, trying to fix them. In a moment less popular with his parents, he once attempted to build a Star Trek-inspired force field and instead, blew out all the breakers in his house. 

"I always wanted to understand everything, both in a physical sense and in a more conceptual and intellectual sense," Zielinski told Hell Gate in a call from Woodbourne Correctional Facility, where he was sent in February of last year, after stints in other upstate prisons. "I want to take everything apart and see exactly how it works, because once you understand how things work, then you can use them to create even more new and interesting things."

That curiosity and interest in science partly explains why Zielinksi wants to be able to watch the rare total solar eclipse that is taking place on April 8, in spite of his incarceration. But earlier this month, New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) announced in a memo that they plan to institute a system-wide lockdown as a safety precaution during the eclipse.  

In New York, the eclipse is a big deal: The path of totality sweeps across 29 counties in the state, offering a chance to catch a solar event that won't happen again for decades. Anticipating an influx of "millions of visitors," Governor Kathy Hochul recently announced that an Interagency Task Force has been meeting for the past 17 months to "ensure everyone can safely enjoy the eclipse." A DOCCS spokesperson confirmed that the department is part of this task force.

In January, Zielinski began a back and forth with prison staff at Woodbourne, asking that he be allowed to watch from the prison's main yard and be provided with eclipse glasses. Zielinski argued that the eclipse has special significance to atheists like himself, whose beliefs are grounded in a devotion to scientific discovery and achievement. In conversation with prison staff, Zielinski suggested the eclipse should be a facility-wide event open to all. Woodbourne's superintendent shot that idea down, Zielinksi told Hell Gate, but his personal request to mark the day as a religious event for his own observation was sent to DOCCS's central office. 

On March 5, to Zielinski's surprise, his request was approved: The prison would allow him to watch from the prison yard and would temporarily provide cardboard eclipse glasses. When word of his win got around, Zielinski quickly learned that many incarcerated people wanted to watch, some for their own religious reasons as well. Zielinski believes that even if everyone isn't allowed to watch, the eclipse should at least be observed as an interfaith event.

"To be able to put aside our differences and just enjoy something together is really, really important," said Zielinski. "There's not that many opportunities to do it, especially in a place like this. When you have an opportunity like that, it's a shame to waste it."

But the prison agency had a different plan. On March 11, DOCCS Acting Commissioner Daniel Martuscello III issued a memo to the state's entire prison population about the solar eclipse, which was obtained by Hell Gate. On April 8, Martuscello wrote, the agency would be taking a "proactive approach to ensure the safety of staff, visitors, and the incarcerated population, and to ensure the integrity of our facilities during this event"—by locking down every incarcerated person in DOCCS's custody, even those held in prisons outside of the eclipse's path of totality, before, during, and after the eclipse. 

While all of the state's correctional facilities "will be impacted with some level of darkness," explained Martuscello, 23 of the state’s prisons fall in the eclipse's path of totality, and "will experience total darkness, ranging from approximately one and a half minutes to approximately three and a half minutes," beginning around 3 p.m. The only remedy for those three minutes of partial or "total" darkness, Martuscello declared—during which electricity will continue to work in and out of prisons—is a three-hour system-wide lockdown.

According to his memo, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on April 8, every incarcerated person in DOCCS's custody will be locked in their housing units, and for those in the 23 prisons that are in the path of totality, all family visits will be canceled that day. Family Reunion Program units at prisons outside of the path of totality are to be emptied by noon. 

Somewhat confusingly, in addition to these restrictions, Martuscello signed off his memo with some chipper news: DOCCS, he wrote, "has placed an order to purchase and distribute solar eclipse safety glasses to facilities in the path of totality for the incarcerated population."

When Hell Gate asked how incarcerated people in the path of totality might view the eclipse if they were locked down in their housing units, a DOCCS spokesperson regurgitated most of Martuscello's memo and didn't address the question. Governor Hochul's office has not responded to a request for comment, though the governor has excitedly noted how much tourism the event will drive to the state and recruited the Buffalo Bills to film a public service announcement about eclipse safety.

As far as Zielinski knows, he remains the only exception to Martuscello's memo, and he will be observing the eclipse alone—Woodbourne won't be in the path of totality, but the eclipse will still be visible and the sky will darken. Religious requests to observe the eclipse "are currently under review," according to the DOCCS spokesperson. Zielinski has gathered statements and requests to watch from fellow incarcerated people who practice an array of religions, and intends to take legal action on their behalf.

Jean Desmarat, who is serving time at Woodbourne with Zielinski, told Hell Gate his request to congregate with fellow incarcerated people who practice Islam to view and pray during the eclipse was denied. The denial is especially frustrating to him, he said, because while incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in 2017, "we congregated and prayed in the prison yard peacefully and uninterrupted" during that year's solar eclipse. 

David Haigh, a Seventh-Day Adventist incarcerated at Woodbourne, has also requested to watch the eclipse. He believes it should be open to all.

"It will be 20 years before another opportunity like this exists," said Haigh, referring to 2044's solar eclipse, which will only reach three states in the United States, far away from New York. "I don't believe that just because I am incarcerated that I should be denied this opportunity, especially when this eclipse is scheduled to happen during normal outside recreation time." Haigh added, "Even for a non-religious person, this eclipse could hold some sort of special meaning."

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