“Everyone’s Coughing, Everyone’s Agitated”

Incarcerated people describe life on Rikers Island as the pandemic spreads.

A man walks away with a sign about Rikers Island in the foreground.
A man enters the road to Rikers Island on March 31, 2017, in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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“It’s not even two feet of space between each bed,” D, who is currently incarcerated on Rikers Island, said in a phone call to Slate. “If I roll over in my bed and put my arm out, I can slap the next person in the face. A full hand slap.”

“We’re like sitting ducks,” said E, another person held in the facility, “because this is a breeding ground. Everyone’s coughing, everyone’s agitated, you can’t get no answers from anybody.”

The New York City prison complex has been a danger zone for the coronavirus, with its notoriously squalid facilities remaining crowded with people who often have medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19—despite persistent efforts to decarcerate the jail.

As of Monday morning, 365 people incarcerated in New York City jails, and 783 staff members, had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Correction. This number does not include people who contracted the coronavirus and died while in DOC custody, nor does it include those who have since been released or transferred.

In a series of phone interviews, four people incarcerated at Rikers described chaotic living arrangements and an unresponsive system, as the deadly respiratory illness spreads among them. All four said that they were scared of getting sick or dying in the jail. They all have preexisting conditions that could cause an adverse outcome should they contract the coronavirus, and one told Slate that he’d been feeling sick with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 recently.

“We take the safety and well-being of those in our custody seriously and we are investigating these claims. We are doing everything we can to safely and humanely house people in custody amid the broader COVID-19 crisis,” said Peter Thorner, the deputy commissioner for public information, through an email from a spokesperson. “We have made tremendous efforts to increase social distancing throughout our facilities, and escalated our hygiene and sanitation protocols in accordance with guidance from the City’s Department of Health. We work closely with Correctional Health Services, the department’s independent healthcare provider, to ensure those who are symptomatic are promptly isolated and referred for treatment as necessary.”

The email confirmed the head-to-toe sleeping arrangements, and said that soap should be available to every detainee; for most of the claims from detained people, the department said it would need more specific details to investigate.

The interviewees are quoted anonymously because their families and attorneys expressed concern about possible retaliation from corrections staff.

Here are some of their accounts:

E: It is extremely difficult in here. It’s horrible. I’ve been to the infirmary twice for complaining about headaches and dry coughs, concerned about this pandemic that’s going around. The last time I went, four of us went, and the nurse turned the machine to her way so we couldn’t see our vital signs. The whole experience was crazy.

So I’ve been experiencing headaches, a dry cough, and I’m very tired.

They have moved people out of this house that have been diagnosed with it, and moved them right back into the same house after they go away for a couple of days. A guy left here about a week ago, and they just brought him back yesterday with the COVID-19. And he told me that he went to another building, they locked him in the cell, and [then] they just told him he was clear and they sent him back to the same housing unit.

J, D, and O are in different housing areas than E. But they all reported that they’re within close contact with someone who is displaying symptoms consistent with a COVID-19 infection.

J: There’s a guy in here, he has the symptoms. He can’t smell, he can’t [taste], he’s having a cough, he has a fever, and they’re keeping them inside the house with us. And they’re saying that they can’t take anyone in medical right now because it’s too much going down there. But he’s telling them that he has all the symptoms and it’s just like they don’t care. He’s sitting right here in front of the door trying to get a sick call. He’s coughing in front of them. He got a cup of Bengay in his hand right now, and he can’t even smell the Bengay.

This kid’s been in here with us for the last 13 days. He been trying to get to the sick call for the last 12.

O: We have someone that’s in the dorm that did explain to a CO yesterday that he can’t smell or taste anything. The CO told him, “That’s not the symptoms of that. That’s just allergies.” Another guy had his wife Google the symptoms, and that definitely is a symptom.

D: They’re just letting him roam all around the house. We’re trying to get him out and into medical. We don’t see no nurses, no medical staff, no nothing. We’re not provided with face masks, we’re not provided with gloves, we’re not provided with disinfectant. We’re not provided with anything in here really.

J: They’re trying to move another inmate in here that tested negative. They’re trying to move him in the house with us now to keep him in here, and it’s going crazy. We have [at least] 42 people in one house with us. We all on top of each other.

All of the incarcerated people who spoke with Slate said that, at some point, because their beds are so close together, they were instructed to sleep with their heads at the opposite end from the person in the next bed, in an attempt to minimize the risk of being infected with the coronavirus.

O: We’re right on top of each other. We sleep a foot or two away from each other, and they’re telling us, “Sleep from head to toe,” which it really doesn’t make a difference, because if you’re right next to someone, then you’re right next to them.

D: We are all piled on top of each other inside this dorm area. There’s a lot of older people in here and people that have medical issues. Me, myself, I have medical issues. I’m nervous of catching this and this adding on to my medical issues. It’s not even two feet of space between each bed. If I roll over in my bed and put my arm out, I can slap the next person in the face. A full hand slap. I can slap that person in the face up to my wrist.

E: If I turn in my bed, either way I turn, I’m two and a half feet away from the next person’s face—and that’s either way I look. North, south, east, or west, there’s a head, and there’s somebody breathing. We can’t be in here on top of each other like that, because we don’t know what each other has. And they’re constantly bringing new admits in here from the outside. Plus, the civilians that come. There are civilians that work in the mess hall, around the food and stuff. They come in and the CO’s come in. We’re like sitting ducks because this is a breeding ground. Everyone’s coughing, everyone’s agitated, you can’t get no answers from anybody.

Once you ask for help in here, they pass the buck. They will send you to this person, and then you get to this person. Then this person will send you to the next person, and that’s how it is in here. They have these numbers up for us to call—mental health services or health services or sick call. There’s three different numbers, and once you call these numbers, nobody never answers the phone.

If you get really sick in here, there’s nothing that nobody can do for you. You can’t go directly to sick call anymore. You have to dial a number, and you have to wait on the line. And people have tried to go to sick call, have called this number and still don’t have a bed. Even if we call 311, it takes so long for us to get through, that, when we finally do, we don’t get to finish the conversation because we only have limited time on the phone. It’s not like our voices are being heard from nobody.

D: When you call the number for medical to complain about your issues, you can’t even get through to a number. I tried it for the last two days. It does not work. I don’t know if it’s not set up, or if it’s set up but we don’t get through to nobody. It don’t even give you a busy. It just clicks off.

There’s people in here that need their medications refilled and they can’t even get that.

E: The food is always cold. It’s nothing nutritional in here. They just give us one little milk in the morning, and most of the time everything is cold cereal. They don’t serve hot food, hot cereal in the morning anymore. There’s no juices in here. They don’t have any water fountains. You have to go to the sink in the bathroom to drink the water. I drink out of a plastic cup that they give you at intake when you first come in. That’s the cup you use the whole time.

We don’t have any gloves, any masks, or any of that type of stuff. But the officers here, they have it.

It’s not really a place that an older person that has a preexisting condition should be in. You can’t get to sick call when we should be able to. Let’s say, I’m having epilepsy or something. It will take them about 20 minutes to get to the house. And nobody in here cares about anything.

I can’t be—I’m more susceptible than a lot of guys in here. And believe me, I don’t want to die in here.

J: They are not giving us no cleaning supplies and told us there’s not enough disinfectant to go around the whole building. There’s not enough gloves and there’s not enough masks for them to give to us. So all the COs basically get it before us. The only soap we got is the little cold press bar.

O: Everybody doesn’t have family to send them money so they can buy soap from commissary. So we do what we do. People will take maybe about $20 out of they own commissary, and buy soap, and distribute it. But still, once the soap is gone …

And they don’t have soap for us. Some of us break the soap that we have in half to share. But if you’re taking a shower two or three times out of the day just to make sure that you’re clean, what do you do? Use that one bar of soap to wash your hands, or wash your dishes? Because we’ve got to also wash our clothes in the sink.

They tell us, “Oh, well, you guys got to wait.” We’re like, “Well, how are we supposed to bathe and wash our clothes?” And then, with this whole pandemic going on, everything is, “Wash your hands,” and, “Do this.” But it doesn’t make sense, if we don’t have the necessities to keep ourselves sanitized.

D: We don’t have face masks. We’re not being provided with face masks, cleaning supplies, no medical.

O: And they don’t give us gloves. They still didn’t have no gloves for serving food. They’ve been having to serve the food without gloves, and these people that’s bringing us our food, they don’t have gloves and masks on. It’s very confusing.

The temperament is starting to change. It’s becoming very volatile toward the COs because they keep telling us different stories. “Oh, we’re going to bring you guys gloves and masks. We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that. We just don’t have it yet.” But we’re like, “Well, why on the news they’re saying that certain things was given to the jail for us to make sure that we stay sanitized? And we have these masks to keep from any type of germs passed around? But you guys are not providing us with anything.”

E: The conditions on a scale of one to 10—one being good and 10 being bad—it’s about a 10. It’s just horrible in here. I’m frightened because of my condition. I’m praying. I can’t get sick in here. That’s what I’m saying. I can’t afford to get sick in here because I know that this is not the place. They’re not equipped to help individuals that get sick in here.

If somebody could see this.

Update, April 20, 2020: This piece has been updated with the most recent COVID-19 infection data for New York jails as provided by the city’s Department of Correction.

Update, April 22, 2020: This piece has been updated with comment from the New York City Department of Correction.