Will Rikers Island Free Inmates Because of the Coronavirus?

Rikers Island. Photo: Debra L Rothenberg/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the New York City Board of Correction called for the immediate release of high-risk inmates from Rikers Island. The Board of Correction, an independent oversight committee for the city’s jail system, said the city must “drastically reduce the number of people in jail right now” to limit the spread of coronavirus. The virus has not yet been detected in a city jail, but the announcement comes two days after David Perez, a New York City Department of Correction investigator, died after testing positive for COVID-19, the first city employee to die from coronavirus. As an investigator, Perez did not interact with large groups of inmates the way corrections officers do, but for criminal-justice advocates, Perez’s death was a harbinger of the inevitable: the detection and spread of the coronavirus in jails and prisons, where social distancing is nearly impossible and basic needs like soap are often inadequate under normal circumstances.

Last week, the advocacy group Release Aging People in Prison called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to grant clemency to elderly and sick inmates, a plea echoed by criminal-justice advocates across the city and state. RAPP petitioned the governor to permanently release inmates, putting them on parole or in community supervision. There is already some precedent for coronavirus clemency. Iran released 70,000 prisoners over the past few weeks. Over the weekend, hundreds of inmates were released from Cuyahoga County Jail in Ohio, and officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco have pledged to reduce their cities’ jail populations by releasing inmates and cutting down on arrests. While New York City and State officials announce drastic, unprecedented measures on a near-daily basis, neither have implemented a plan to manage the 44,000 people behind bars, living in a space that is ideal for transmission.

“The only way we can possibly keep incarcerated people safe is to release them,” said Justine Olderman, executive director of the Bronx Defenders. “The next best thing is to drastically reduce the number of people being held. Neither of those things are being done right now. As public defenders, what we’re actually seeing happen is the opposite, and it is terrifying.”

On the whole, advocates fear city and state correctional facilities are woefully underprepared. An internal document obtained by The City, outlined a 22-page plan for Rikers Island that included having inmates sleep head-to-toe three feet apart. Facing widespread criticism for the plan, the Department of Correction has yet to elaborate on its preparations, according to Kelsey De Avila, of Brooklyn Defender Services. “Our biggest concern is how we’re housing people and separating people. If we’re just going to lock down our jails, are we going to be using current units or housing units or solitary units? What does that look like? How will they get access to medical care? There’s only 70 beds in the contagious disease unit on Rikers Island with a population around 5,000. Those are the questions that we need answers to.”

Last week, Governor Cuomo announced that inmates were producing hand sanitizer for an average of 65 cents an hour. But it’s still unclear if those inmates will even be allowed to use hand sanitizer, which is considered contraband in prisons. The governor also halted all in-person visits to correctional facilities, but correctional officers constitute far more traffic in and out facilities every day than visitors.

Just like the general public, sick and elderly prisoners are most vulnerable to COVID-19, and about 13 percent of New York’s incarcerated are 55 and older. Spending time in prison is already a health risk and reduces life expectancy.

“There is a population that’s uniquely vulnerable that we need to remember: older and seriously ill people in our prisons,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement last week. “Once the virus spreads to our prisons, older incarcerated people and those with preexisting health problems will be in the virus’s crosshairs and the prisons will not have the capacity to care for them.” In a joint statement issued on Tuesday, Gonzalez and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, along with 29 other prosecutors across the country, endorsed temporary release. The district attorneys for Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx did not sign the letter and neither Gonzalez nor Vance have issued guidelines on how to implement such a plan.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents officers on Rikers Island, called the proposal “asinine” and “irresponsible.” Instead, COBA challenged the city to provide more masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and other supplies for corrections officers.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has yet to report a confirmed case, is facing similar questions. On March 9, New York representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, along with Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, penned a letter with a list of questions about BOP’s plan for its facilities, including whether inmates would be allowed to use hand sanitizer. On Saturday, Pressley called for the “compassionate release” of federal inmates.

“It’s a human tragedy,” said Michelle Lind, whose 73-year-old husband is incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York. “I’ve wished and hoped and prayed that they would save the elderly, but they’ve waited way too long.” Michelle Lind’s husband, Robert Lind, was sentenced to 50 years-to-life for attempted murder in 1983 after a shootout with police in Washington Heights in which no officer was hurt. After 37 years in prison, Michelle Lind said her husband has been rehabilitated. In February, he underwent four weeks of chemotherapy for prostate cancer.

“We called him grandpa,” said Jose Saldana, director of Release Aging People in Prison, who met Lind while they were both incarcerated in the late 1980s. “In prison, he’s become an iconic figure. He single-handedly developed and implemented a whole transitional services concept.”

“If he gets the virus, you can almost guarantee that it’s going to kill him,” said Saldana. “And he wasn’t sentenced to death.”

This is a developing story and has been updated to reflect new information.

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Will Rikers Island Free Inmates Because of the Coronavirus?