As Coronavirus Spreads, Can The City Protect Its Inmates?

By now, many New Yorkers are doing their best to social distance to keep from getting coronavirus. But how do you do that if you’re behind bars?

Cramped quarters means sickness spreads quickly in prisons, jails and detention centers. Yesterday an officer at Rikers Island tested positive for coronavirus, and days earlier a Department of Correction Investigator died from the disease. People are saying we need to release many inmates now, before the disease spreads like wildfire within our city’s jails.

In a press conference yesterday, public advocate Jumaane Williams and city council member Brad Lander said we have to act now to protect our community. We’re asking inmates to make hand sanitizer for us, but not helping them in return. “New York State, right now, is showing itself willing to use incarcerated labor to respond to COVID-19, but not to adequately protect incarcerated people from it,” Williams said. “The city must do better.”

Brad Lander was equally furious. “New York City and New York State have a responsibility to shrink the jail population by halting arrests for low-level offenses and releasing people who are most vulnerable to illness,” Lander said. “If we fail to do so, the increased death toll will be on our hands, and no amount of soap will wash it away.”

Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Rights Practice at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement yesterday that New Yorkers at city jails should be released immediately if possible. “Over the past week, we have received multiple complaints from clients concerning the lack of basic sanitation measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at local jails, and the situation will undoubtedly get worse in the coming days,” Luongo said. “Lives will be lost unless our leaders in government act now and decisively.”

Just at Rikers there are nearly 1,000 people that are 50 years old and older, and many people have health conditions that could make coronavirus really dangerous for them.

Advocates, public officials and regular people across the country are demanding that jails release some inmates. If some people are released, it’ll make the jails less crowded and hopefully slow the spread of the virus.

Last night, Mayor Bill DeBlasio went on WCBS Radio and said he will release some inmates from Rikers. 

“We will identify any inmates who we think need to be brought out, either because of their own health conditions, if they have any pre-existing conditions, or because the charges were minor and we think it’s appropriate to bring them out in this context.”

Councilmember Carlos Menchaca of Sunset Park tweeted yesterday morning, “It’s National Public Defenders Day. A sober remembrance, given that so many defenders are desperately calling for courts to close, jails to empty pretrial detainees, and suspend immigration enforcement. If we care about these public servants, then we need to LISTEN to them.”

Menchaca has also been pushing for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to stop arrests and release immigrants who are vulnerable to coronavirus. Putting people into cramped facilities is more dangerous now than ever.

Here in Brooklyn, there are more than 1,600 inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal jail located in Sunset Park. That doesn’t take into account the Brooklynites that are at Rikers. The Brooklyn Detention Complex on Atlantic Avenue closed in January of this year, as part of Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s plan to close the jail on Rikers Island and build new jails in each borough.

Another way to decrease the density of prisons is to not put new people in jail in the first place. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced earlier this week that he’s not going to prosecute low-level offenses that aren’t a threat to public safety. Some lawmakers want to roll back bail reform in New York, according to the New York Daily News, a move that would increase our jail population instead of reducing it.

Brooklyn Defender Services, an organization that provides criminal, civil, family and immigration legal defense, has also put out a statement demanding that vulnerable inmates be released. “A coronavirus outbreak in our overcrowded, poorly maintained jails and prison facilities would be devastating, swift, and deadly,” the statement says.

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Ana Lucia Murillo

Ana Lucia is a reporter and covers the Latinx community in Brooklyn. Questions & tips: amurillo@bklyner.com

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