The first COVID-related death of a Rikers Island prisoner was announced on Sunday, when Michael Tyson, 53, succumbed at a local hospital, the New York Times reports. He’d been removed from the jail complex for treatment on March 26; he was locked up on February 28 for a technical, noncriminal parole violation, according to the City. The following day, on March 27, Governor Andrew Cuomo proclaimed that he would free up to 400 people from New York City jails who’d been incarcerated for technical parole violations. It’s unclear if Tyson would’ve been included in this number. That his death is attributable, in part, to the governor’s belated and arbitrary timing is less in dispute.
Officials announced Rikers’ first cases of the novel coronavirus on March 18. Its victims then were a corrections officer and a prisoner. In the nearly four weeks since, that figure has ballooned to almost 650, including at least 273 detainees, with five deaths. As of last week, the rate at which the virus was infecting people on Rikers outpaced New York sevenfold — a sobering statistic in light of the city’s nation-leading infection rate and the United States reporting the most confirmed cases in the world. Warnings about how COVID-19’s rapid spread in the general population would be reflected in jails and prisons go at least as far back. Yet despite the consensus among health experts and oversight officials that swift decarceration was the most effective countermeasure, Cuomo and New York mayor Bill de Blasio have been slow to act. The governor has sweeping power to grant clemency and guide the Parole Board’s actions; de Blasio wields significant influence over city agencies like the police. Both have opted to free relatively small numbers of prisoners piecemeal while declining to halt new intakes.
The result is thousands of New Yorkers trapped in “death cages,” to quote one Legal Aid Society case handler, while the virus picks them off. In many instances, the conditions to which they’re subjected defy the Department of Correction’s own standards of pandemic safety. Jails and prisons are, by their nature, cramped and unsanitary. Prisoners are confined to tight quarters, access to cleaning supplies is limited, and hand sanitizer is considered contraband. At Rikers, many bunk in dormitories that house 50 and sleep less than two feet away from each other. Prisoners who are elderly, or who have chronic illnesses, abound. Some prisoners have resorted to playing medic to their symptomatic counterparts while waiting for an overburdened medical staff to address their clinical needs. A sense of panic pervades the facility from top to bottom; guards and prisoners have been compelled into an uneasy alliance as a result of a shared understanding that COVID-19 is affecting them all similarly. “It’s like The Walking Dead in here,” one Rikers prisoner, Shiva, told me last month. “We’re all trying to survive right now.”
Yet so far, they’ve largely been left to their own devices, even as developments remain underway that would make their circumstances worse. Last week, Cuomo passed a state budget that will roll back New York’s recently implemented bail-reform law. Where since January, thousands of New Yorkers have been kept off Rikers Island — and therefore out of the virus’s path there — due to the law’s narrowed range of bail- and detention-eligible offenses, the governor and legislature have decided to expand them again. Consequently, the next public-health crisis will have a bumper crop of defenseless victims to choose from. The governor has also lied openly about what he can do to stem the current outbreak. Cuomo reportedly claimed last week that he has “no way to reduce the prison population right now” — despite being, quite literally, the only person in the country besides the president who could free any New Yorker from prison today. There’s blood on many hands as COVID-19 charts its deadly path, but few in New York have been as willfully negligent in addressing it as Cuomo. Michael Tyson is likely just the beginning. The rest of Rikers can do little but await its fate.