Coronavirus Has Arrived at Rikers Island: Inside New York City Jails, Where the Pandemic Is Set to Explode

Sinks don't work. Soap is missing. Is there even a plan? Prisoner advocates couldn't get any answers.

FILE -- Rikers Island in New York, Sept. 8, 2017. A city investigation found the Department of Corrections failed to properly screen job applicants, missing disqualifying red flags like arrests. (Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times)
Incarcerated people and officers at Rikers Island in New York, Sept. 8, 2017. Photo: Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times/Redux

As New York City, like the rest of the United States, plunges into a public health crisis expected to be worse than anything in living memory, city residents have finally begun to heed the advice of medical professionals on how to limit exposure: Wash your hands often, disinfect surfaces, practice social distancing.

For the New Yorkers held in city jails on Rikers Island, though, these basic prescriptions — if they’ve even been made aware of them — are not within their power to follow.

They are locked in filthy intake rooms with dozens of other people for days on end, confined to housing units or dorm-style sleeping areas with scores of other people, dependent on staff for soap and on correction officers for permission and an escort to visit a medical clinic. The roughly 5,400 men and women detained in city jails on Rikers Island don’t have the agency to protect themselves from the disease, even as they are constantly exposed to the contagions of the outside world through the constant churn of three daily shifts of corrections officers and staff.

A New York City Department of Corrections employee died on Tuesday after being diagnosed with the coronavirus. A departmental press release cautioned that the dead man had only “limited contact” with people in custody. Officials said that, as of Tuesday, there had been no confirmed cases of Covid-19 inside city jails. On Wednesday, a news report said the first cases of coronavirus at the jail had been confirmed: one incarcerated person and a prison guard who worked at the jail complex’s gate.

“You have a situation where all the protocols that are coming out of the Centers for Disease Control cannot be enacted.”

The restricted ability of people locked on Rikers to protect themselves is a problem because many of them, due to age or underlying health conditions, are at higher risk of getting very sick or dying from the disease. It’s also a problem because the officials tasked with making sure incarcerated people are safe have so far refused to release any comprehensive plan for handling an outbreak. Despite growing calls to release vulnerable people from the Petri dish of Rikers, officials have taken no steps to do so.

“We know that there literally is no way to ensure the health and well-being of people incarcerated on Rikers in this type of crisis,” said Justine Olderman, executive director of Bronx Defenders, a public defender organization. “It is an incubator for the spread of disease and viruses, and this virus is unlike anything that anyone has ever seen. You have a situation where all the protocols that are coming out of the Centers for Disease Control cannot be enacted: There are broken sinks, there’s no hand sanitizer, people don’t have access to soap, and at a time we’re all being asked to do social distancing, you have an environment where people are sleeping 100 to a room. In a situation like that, the only moral thing to do is release them.”

The accounts that are trickling out from Rikers are not encouraging. Last week, a man with a medical history that makes him especially vulnerable to contracting coronavirus, housed in a special-housing unit in one Rikers jail, called a social worker twice in one day to report that he was exhibiting symptoms of disease. Others in his special housing unit were coughing and exhibiting flu-like symptoms, the man told the social worker, who relayed the account to a lawyer who asked that they all remain anonymous to avoid reprisals. The men in the unit were told that there were not enough correction officers to transport them to the health clinic.

Kelsey de Avila, director of jail services for Brooklyn Defender Services, another public defender organization, said she spoke with two incarcerated people on Monday who described both a lack of information and the absence of basic sanitation. “Of the two men I spoke to, one said no one had come to talk to him about what’s happening at all, and he hadn’t seen any posters in his housing area or the halls he’s walking in,” de Avila said. “The other man said someone had come in and told people they should wash their hands and cover their mouth when they cough.”

One of the people de Avila spoke to said someone on his unit had been coughing all day. “We don’t know what it is, if he just has a cough, if he’s seen medical staff or not,” she said. “But that’s part of the point: Our client doesn’t have any information, and he’s nervous.” The man asked a correction officer if they could move their beds, he told de Avila. “The CO said, ‘Yeah, do whatever you want.’ It’s not really the level of response we need in this situation.”

Especially concerning is incarcerated people’s limited access to sanitation. Those in jail can buy soap from the commissary, if they can afford it. Otherwise, they’re dependent on the general-issue soap. The man de Avila spoke with in dorm housing said his unit had about 30 to 40 people in it, with an attached bathroom with eight to 10 sinks. “Each sink has its own bar of soap, which you’re sharing with 30 or 40 people,” she said. “He went to the bathroom this morning, and every bar of soap was missing. Did someone throw them out? Was someone hoarding them? We don’t know. But, as of noon that day, no one had replaced them.”

“This is how it spreads. This is why it’s going to spread.”

The Legal Aid Society of New York City, another public defender organization, spoke on March 12 with five people held on Rikers who described a similar disregard for sanitation and public health there. One person with underlying medical conditions told Legal Aid that his housing unit had no soap. When he asked a captain whether there were plans to get some, he got no answer. Another said he was issued industrial laundry soap but told that he’d have to buy bar soap to wash himself. A third person, housed on a unit for people requiring intensive medical care, said his unit didn’t have adequate cleaning supplies. A fourth man, who is immunocompromised, said his unit has no soap and that the common areas and showers are not being cleaned daily.

A fifth person described spending several days in a dirty intake room, in close quarters with dozens of people, some of whom had been coughing, only to be moved into a housing unit with no cleaning supplies, where correction officers told him that if he wanted disinfectant, he could buy it from the commissary.

At a time when public health officials are urging frequent hand-washing as one of the top ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, denying people access to soap is especially dangerous, de Avila said. “This is how it spreads,” she said. “This is why it’s going to spread.”

FILE - In this July 31, 2014 file photo, Rikers Island emergency services personnel walk through one of many gates inside the jail's juvenile detention facility in New York. The city’s juvenile jails are extremely violent and unsafe, the result of a deeply ingrained culture of violence in which guards routinely violate constitutional rights of teenage inmates and subject them to “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force,” federal prosecutors said in a scathing report released Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

Rikers Island emergency services personnel walk through one of many gates inside the jail complex in New York on July 31, 2014.

Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP

The coronavirus threat has been on people’s radar for months now. In recent weeks, watchdogs and advocates for people held in Rikers have been calling on the New York City Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services, the city division responsible for medical care in city jails, to produce a comprehensive plan for handling the pandemic, and to make that plan public.

Two weeks ago, on March 3, the New York City Board of Corrections, a civilian oversight body tasked with monitoring conditions in city jails, sent a letter to the Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services requesting a written plan and including a detailed list of questions about how they intended to prevent transmission, as well as diagnose and treat people who became infected, according to a spokesperson for the board. No written plan was shared or published.

On March 9, The City, a nonprofit news outlet, published a leaked internal Department of Corrections document described as a pandemic plan to be activated “when the first case of coronavirus is reported in the Department of Correction.” The document emphasizes the need for frequent hand-washing with soap and daily cleaning of housing facilities. It calls for incarcerated people with confirmed coronavirus infections to be housed in the Communicable Disease Unit at Rikers.

According to a recent presentation prepared by the mayor’s office, Rikers’s Communicable Disease Unit has a total of 70 beds. What happens when the number of coronavirus infections exceeds the capacity of the Communicable Disease Unit? The Department of Corrections pandemic plan gets rather vague: “Appropriate housing shall be identified.”

For some concerned observers, the leaked pandemic plan raised at least as many questions as it answered. How many of those 70 beds are actually available and how many are currently in use by people needing other forms of medical care? Have they been maintained to proper medical standards since they were built for the tuberculosis crisis that swept Rikers in the 1980s? Are there enough medical staff to serve in the event of an outbreak? What happens when the 70 beds are filled and cases keep piling up? How many sinks are actually working on Rikers? How often is soap restocked? Is anyone keeping track of incarcerated people at high risk if they’re infected?

The Legal Aid Society of New York and Brooklyn Defender Services wrote letters to the Board of Correction the week of March 2, asking the board to demand answers to these and other questions at its monthly public hearing on March 10. To their great dismay, that’s not what happened. Instead, at the hearing, Patricia Feeney, the Department of Correction deputy commissioner for quality assurance and integrity, delivered a nine-slide presentation on preparedness, of which six slides were examples of informational posters she said were being posted in the jails. Ross MacDonald, chief medical officer for Correctional Health Services, told the board that people are being screened at courthouses before they are taken to city jails, and medical staff are keeping an eye out for fever symptoms among incarcerated people. The presentation and the board’s questions lasted all of 22 minutes, after which they went on to other business. No detailed plan was presented or asked for. The specific questions public defenders had posed were given no airing.

For de Avila, of Brooklyn Defender Services, the hearing was a crushing missed opportunity. “I was absolutely appalled by how they handled it,” she said. “They let the Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services just walk away. Their whole job is to hold them accountable and they failed us all that day.”

A spokesperson for the Board of Correction declined to comment on the characterization, saying, “On March 3 and March 10, the Board sent letters to the Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services requesting a written plan on preventing the transmission of COVID-19 in New York City jails. We’ve requested they publish this plan and increase communication to people in custody, staff, and the public. DOC and CHS are doing heroic work right now to keep people in custody and staff safe in the jails – it is critical to their public health efforts that they communicate this work regularly and comprehensively.”

On March 13, after the hearing, the board sent a second letter to Department of Correction and  Correctional Health Services, again stressing the need to improve their communication, with calls to release a plan and for the Department of Correction to consider how it might release sick or especially vulnerable people from jail, according to a board spokesperson. Again, neither agency replied in writing to the letter. If a comprehensive written plan for handling coronavirus on Rikers exists, it hasn’t been made public or shared with the Board of Correction.

The Intercept wrote to the Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services this week posing many of the same questions that went unanswered when asked by the public defender organizations. The Department of Correction responded on Monday that “it can take days to get back to you on some of these questions.” Correctional Health Services responded with a statement that left most of the questions unanswered.

As the reality that massive coronavirus infection on Rikers is all but certain has sunk in, and with confidence about the jails’ capacity to control and treat it waning, advocates have begun pressing to get the most vulnerable people off the island.

Other jurisdictions have led the way. In Cleveland, the local jail began releasing some of its most vulnerable inmates last weekend. In Los Angeles, county jails have begun releasing people near the end of their sentences to reduce the jail population. Public defenders across New York City have been trying to compile lists of clients at high risk, preparing draft writs they can file in court to ask for release. But those motions can be opposed by prosecutors and would require a judge’s approval.

A spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said he has directed prosecutors to “be mindful of vulnerable populations when making bail requests,” and that his office will “definitely consider” applications for modifications of bail to get vulnerable people out. Gonzalez tweeted a statement on Tuesday asking public defenders to notify his office about vulnerable people in pretrial detention “who we should consider releasing during this crisis.” (The Intercept asked the other four district attorneys in New York if they supported efforts to get people with high health risks in a coronavirus outbreak out of city jails. None responded.)

Even in instances in which judges to agree to release people from Rikers, that’s often not enough. Many people are in city jails on parole violations. Those people are in jail on parole holds and can only be released by order of the Parole Board, which is under the control of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“What’s so disturbing is that people are acting like nothing has changed.”

Some advocates question why it should fall to public defenders to try to identify vulnerable people and petition for their freedom. “We’ve thrown ourselves into preparing these lists and these writs to get vulnerable people out one-by-one,” said Olderman, of the Bronx Defenders. “But at a certain point a bell goes off. The courts, prosecutors, DOC — they have all this information, and they have all of the power. They know it’s harder than ever for us to be in touch with our clients in jail. They could make a statement supporting the release of anyone in these broad categories. Instead, they’re asking us to track it all down and pick at it, piece by piece. ‘Send us a writ, make an application’ — like it’s business as usual. There is such a void of leadership in keeping incarcerated people safe.”

On Tuesday, the Board of Correction issued a statement calling for the city to begin releasing people from Rikers. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press office did not answer questions emailed Monday about the mayor’s support for releasing people, but Tuesday he said he was “evaluating” the possibility.

On Wednesday, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other council members called on the mayor and district attorneys to immediately identify people held on Rikers who can be released. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Council Member Brad Lander echoed those calls in their own letter, adding that Cuomo should stop jailing people for technical parole violations and free older, high-risk people.

That was the foreboding landscape on Wednesday morning, when news broke about the two positive tests for coronavirus: the prison guard and the incarcerated person. If an all-out crisis on Rikers is to be averted, advocates say, time is fast running out.

“Most of the people being held on Rikers Island haven’t been convicted of a crime,” said Olderman. “When you’re talking about a system of pretrial detention that guarantees people’s safety and ensures they can come back to court, that’s one thing. We might disagree what that situation should look like and who should be caught up on it, but that’s over to one side right now. Once you enter a universe where you are sending people who have not been convicted of a crime to sit in a jail cell under circumstances that cannot protect their health or even their lives, there’s a whole different calculus at play.”

“What’s so disturbing is that people are acting like nothing has changed.”

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