The Slatest

Rikers Island Has 52 Confirmed COVID-19 Cases

With beds less than 3 feet apart and cleaning materials in short supply, the predicted spread of the coronavirus in U.S. jails and prisons is underway.

An aerial view of the Rikers Island prison
An aerial view of the Rikers Island prison in New York City.
Debra L. Rothenberg/WireImage

As of Tuesday, 52 people incarcerated on Rikers Island had confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 96 other people are under observation and awaiting test results, a member of the New York City Board of Correction told Slate.

People who are having symptoms and those who are suspected to be infected are being tested, said Dr. Robert Cohen, a physician who sits on the board. Others may be tested because they came into contact with an infected person. Men with confirmed cases, or those being isolated out of caution, are housed in the complex’s recently reopened Eric M. Taylor Center, while women are in the West Facility, or in one of the housing areas in the women’s jail.

Just over 5,000 people are currently housed on Rikers, according to Cohen. Five hundred and fifty-one of them are serving less than a year for low-level offenses. Six hundred and sixty-six people are in Rikers due to a technical parole violation—including missing curfew, testing positive for drugs, or missing meetings. Another 811 were arrested for a new crime that would have likely been processed as a misdemeanor but was remanded due to their status as parolees.

“In New York City, there are a lot of people locked up in small, dirty places who don’t have to be,” said Cohen. “So the notion that they would stay and the people who are responsible for caring for them medically and from a security perspective are going to be exposed to unnecessary life-threatening risks doesn’t make sense.”

As advocates continued to warn of the danger the pandemic poses to incarcerated people, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to release 300 more people from Rikers, in addition to the 75 released last week on Tuesday.

But advocates argued that the de Blasio administration isn’t addressing incarcerated people with the same urgency seen in the rest of the city’s responses to the coronavirus. “Social distancing [in Rikers] is an impossibility,” said Rebecca Kavanagh, a legal analyst and criminal defense attorney. “It’s literally going to be a matter of days before people start dying in massive numbers. And, I’m not trying to be melodramatic, but the mayor and the governor are both going to have blood on their hands. It’s not a situation that is complicated. There are so many people who can be so easily released.”

“Jail is going to put many people at increased risk of getting infected and the infection is spreading rapidly on Rikers Island,” Cohen said. “There are going to be a lot of sick people who are going to overwhelm the capacity of the jails to function and many people will suffer because of that. It puts the people living there at risk. It puts the people who work there at risk — and it’s not necessary.”

When the state incarcerates someone, they are responsible for that person, said Hawk Newsome, an organizer with Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. And because the state has control over their lives, they are obligated to do what’s in the best interest of the people under their care, which, in this case, would be to release them.

“If we’re talking about people with a limited amount of time to serve who are nonviolent or drug offenders, then these people should be released,” said Newsome. “People who do not pose a threat to society should be released.”

Respiratory diseases are transmitted more easily between people who are in close quarters. And jails are places where people exist in close proximity to one another. In Rikers, the wards are set up in a dormitory style where the beds are less than 3 feet apart. People housed in the facilities on the island share showers, dining tables, and toilets in addition to traveling through the jails together in large groups. It’s a literal breeding ground for infectious disease.

SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes the COVID-19 disease, can persist on surfaces for extended periods of time, and researchers believe people can be infected when they touch contaminated spaces. The cleaning necessary to prevent that is intensive, and there aren’t many who would consider Rikers a clean place. Current reports have said that incarcerated folks are sharing gloves, being served food on dirty trays, and lacking access to soap or hand sanitizer.

The Board of Correction is trying to track whether the jail is capable of providing adequate and frequent cleanings along with supplies so that people can clean their own spaces. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the oversight agency for public health in the city, has said that diluted bleach solutions are effective at sanitizing and killing the virus. The solution can theoretically be diluted to a level that is not dangerous to those incarcerated.

There are 906 people housed on Rikers currently who are older than 50, many of whom are in less than ideal health. Comorbidities exist disparately within the population of Rikers, and older people there are taking multiple medications for two or more adverse health issues.

“They will get very sick if they get infected and it will overwhelm the capacity of the medical systems to care for them,” said Cohen.

Kavanagh is concerned that people who seek medical care could be ignored or brutalized. Eight inmates were reportedly pepper-sprayed by guards for demanding temperature checks after a person housed in the unit was removed with a fever, a common symptom of COVID-19.

Failure to provide medical aid is one of many human rights violations that occur on a systemic level in U.S. prisons and jails. And, in Rikers, even in ordinary times, the treatment of incarcerated folks seeking care is indicative of a blatant disregard for the physical health of people who are locked up. Human cries for help have, more than once, prompted correctional officers to commit extreme acts of violence, while the nonchalance and inaction of the jail’s staff has also played a role in a number of health-related deaths.

This has always worried advocates but is now exacerbated by the current pandemic—which has canceled visitation and in-person contact between inmates and attorneys. And rather than taking steps toward reform, the city has responded to the disease outbreak by reversing its progress toward the future closing of Rikers by reopening the space in the Eric M. Taylor Center.

“This is a crisis of a magnitude that we really haven’t seen in the system before,” said Kavanagh. “There is just a level of disregard for human life that you see time and time again. It is really concerning to think about how that is playing out in the current environment especially when we don’t have visitation and people aren’t seeing their families.”