State prisons plan lockdown for eclipse; six inmates sue to view event

Apr. 2—When the solar eclipse crosses upstate New York on Monday, darkness will fall over 23 state prisons from Western New York to the eastern north country. The people incarcerated at those prisons will likely not be able to view the event.

A memo issued by the acting commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, shared with all incarcerated people and obtained by the Times, details how the entire state's incarcerated population will be locked down in their housing units for a three-hour period starting an hour before the eclipse begins.

While 23 prisons are in the path of totality that will experience total darkness for a period of minutes in the late afternoon, the remainder of the state will experience partial coverage that will still darken the skies.

Among those 23 prisons in the path of totality are the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility in Jefferson County, Gouverneur and Riverview correctional facilities in St. Lawrence County, as well as Bare Hill, Franklin and Upstate correctional facilities in Franklin County.

On March 11, acting DOCCS commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III said the lockdowns are 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."

Visitation will be canceled that day at the 23 prisons along the path of totality, and for the remaining facilities all family visitations must be finished before noon.

DOCCS officials said this is to ensure that visitors and staff are not adversely impacted by the heavy traffic anticipated across Western and Northern New York on the day of the eclipse.

According to the memo, although incarcerated people will not be able to view the eclipse as they will be locked inside, DOCCS still purchased and plans to distribute eclipse safety glasses to the facilities within the path of totality.

A spokesperson for DOCCS shared a statement that largely reflects the commissioner's memo.

The spokesperson said facility superintendents will meet with committees of incarcerated people to discuss the lockdown.

The spokesperson also said the eclipse glasses are being distributed for people who may be able to see the event through their windows.

But the policy has prompted six incarcerated men, all held at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County, to sue the state.

On Friday, the six men filed a complaint in federal court in the Northern District of New York, arguing that the eclipse is a religious event that they need to see and reflect on as a part of their traditions.

The six men are of various faiths: Muslim, Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, two Santeria followers and one atheist.

While Woodbourne is not in the path of totality, it will experience a partial eclipse that the six complainants contend is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The next solar eclipse to hit the United States will be in 2044, but its path of totality will only cover Montana and the Dakotas, and New York will see nothing of that eclipse. New York will next be in the path of a total solar eclipse in 2399.

The federal court has less than a week to issue a ruling to change DOCCS plans or provide the six men with a way to view the eclipse. DOCCS officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, as it is the agency's policy not to comment publicly on pending litigation.