The Slatest

Rikers Reports First Coronavirus Death as Legal Aid Calls for Prisoner Release

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

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Michael Tyson’s last days began as part of New York’s usual correctional routine: On Feb. 28, the 53-year-old was locked up in the Rikers Island jail complex for a technical parole violation, joining hundreds of other people held in the aging and dysfunctional facility for rules infractions rather than new crimes.* Tyson died on Sunday in a hospital, where he was being treated for COVID-19—the first person to die from the pandemic while in New York City custody, as the extraordinary coronavirus meets the ordinary conditions of incarceration.

Tyson was taken to the hospital on March 26. The next day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said 400 people held in city jails on technical parole violations would be released, but the names of eligible people are being announced in batches, and Tyson’s attorneys received no word about whether he would be included. As of Tuesday morning, 693 people had their warrants canceled, including 238 people in New York City.

On April 3, Tyson joined a lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society of New York, demanding release due to a medical condition that made him particularly vulnerable to adverse complications from the coronavirus.

Two days later, he became the second incarcerated person in the state confirmed to have died from the coronavirus, following 58-year-old Juan Mosquero, who died on March 30 in Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

With the pace of the outbreaks exceeding the pace of the system’s response, more deaths seem certain to follow. America’s prison population is aging and, due to a historical failure of policy, Black people are not only more likely to be incarcerated—they are apparently more likely to succumb to the current coronavirus, a trend emerging from the available demographic data on COVID-19 deaths.

On April 6, Legal Aid urged the state to respond more quickly to the crisis, sending Cuomo a letter listing 105 incarcerated people who would be especially medically vulnerable to complications or death if they were to contract COVID-19.

The letter, a redacted version of which Legal Aid shared with Slate, describes how the listed people fit a set of three criteria that the public defender service believes should each qualify someone for immediate release: They are suffering from serious medical conditions, they’re over the age of 50, or they have an upcoming release date. Legal Aid is also asking the state to conduct a broader review to identify others housed in state jails and prisons who meet similar criteria.

“Due to the prison environment, there’s really no way that the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision can sufficiently protect people from contracting COVID-19,” said Stefen Short, an attorney with Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project.

Legal Aid’s letter identifies 39 of the 105 listed as being “acutely vulnerable to infection” and shares their stories, which it hopes will highlight the urgency of decarceration. The descriptions highlight how people suffering from a number of medical issues that could provoke an adverse outcome should they contract COVID-19—including HIV/AIDS, lupus, asthma, hypertension, kidney disease, and epilepsy—are not able to receive adequate access to medical attention or the space to follow federal social distancing guidelines.

Among the people on the list are a 72-year-old man who has served 11 years of a 12-year sentence and who has prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, and “a long (fifteen year) history of respiratory conditions like [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], severe asthma, recurring walking pneumonia and bronchitis.” The letter says he shares a dormitory with 51 other people, which is “close to two other units that are currently used to quarantine individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 or suspected to have it,” and which uses the same common space as those units at different times of day.

A 56-year-old incarcerated woman with lupus, heart disease, and severe asthma is assigned to work in the Department of Motor Vehicles, “where she works with several other people and where the lunch area is small, resulting in her inability to maintain the recommended six feet of distance from others,” according to the letter. In prison, she shares “a day room, toilets, sinks and shower areas” with other women, “and cleaning supplies are not readily available.”

Their stories highlight a stark inconsistency between the social distancing measures Cuomo has advocated for and the rate at which he’s been willing to decarcerate New York jails and prisons.

“We hear him make statements all day long about how New Yorkers should stay home and avoid social gatherings—and he’s raising fines for failing to comply—but it is completely within his power to help DOCCS try to achieve some of the same measures of protection in our state prisons and he’s just not taking that action,” said Elizabeth Isaacs, an attorney with Legal Aid’s Criminal Appeals Bureau.*

Legal Aid has sent four letters to Cuomo and DOCCS but has only received a response to the first one, said Short. The public defender service sent a note on March 18 asking about specific plans to address COVID-19 in state jails and prisons. A follow-up was sent on March 30 demanding the release of four people. Legal Aid claims the state did not respond to either of those letters.

When asked for comment, Cuomo’s office pointed Slate to March 27 comments the governor made regarding the release of prisoners during the pandemic. “We passed one of the most sweeping bill reform bills in the history of the State of New York so we’re incarcerating fewer people than ever before and taking special measures for this virus situation,” Cuomo said during an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “For example, we’re releasing people who are in jails because they violated parole for non-serious reasons. And wherever we can get people out of jails, out of prisons, now we are. We also put in additional protections in the prisons to try to protect both the workers and the prisoners.”

The office also said that DOCCS has implemented CDC and State Department of Health guidelines.

The full letter can be read below. Legal Aid has redacted the names and corrections ID numbers for those listed because they are sharing private health information and because some clients have expressed concern about retaliation from corrections staff.

Correction, April 7, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Michael Tyson’s first name and Elizabeth Isaacs’ last name.