Rikers Island

Don’t leave people to die from COVID-19 on Rikers Island

The conditions are crowded and unsanitary and the spread inside will eventually get outside.

Rikers Island

Rikers Island Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

I used to be detained on Rikers Island. In 2016, I was sentenced to eight months in the Rose M. Singer Center for women, or Rosie’s as it is known to inmates. Rikers Island has severe problems with unsanitary conditions and lack of access to health care under normal circumstances, and I dread to imagine what it must be like to be incarcerated there now.

As of writing this, 39 people in custody at Rikers have tested positive for COVID-19, and another 58 are under medical supervision in quarantine units. 

Last Wednesday, the New York City Board of Correction, an independent government body meant to oversee safety in the jails recommended that New York “drastically reduce the number of people in jail right now.” That night, the city jail system’s top doctor Ross MacDonald posted a frankly terrifying Twitter thread that noted he had elderly inmates sleeping in dorms and sharing toilets. “A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient,” MacDonald wrote. “What will you be doing? What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can. end.” 

But as of Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to release only 75 people, a little more than 1% of the population at Rikers Island. He is currently considering 400 more inmates for release by Wednesday. Even if all 400 are released, that would still be only 7.5% of Rikers Island’s current population. If he ignores his staff’s medical guidance, it is no exaggeration to say the mayor will be to blame for the inevitable deaths that result. (De Blasio can only recommend release – the district attorney and judge for each defendant have to sign off, but so far the DAs are agreeing to everyone de Blasio proposes.) 

I understand why the prospect of releasing thousands of detainees gives the mayor pause. Rikers is a jail and not a prison, which means the vast majority of people detained there are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted. Nevertheless, many people detained at Rikers are guilty of the allegations against them, some of which are violent and quite serious. Many also have prior records. 

Unlike the majority of those incarcerated on Rikers Island, I was convicted and sentenced for a non-violent crime. (New York City residents serving less than one year do so on Rikers instead of at state prisons.) I had a substance abuse problem and I was convicted of sale of a controlled substance and grand larceny. I deserved to be sentenced for those crimes, but no one deserves to face possible death for the charges that landed them on Rikers. 

Although I am relatively young and healthy, I knew many people in my time on Rosie’s who could suffer during this pandemic. Rosie’s has a nursery and pregnancy ward, along with many elderly and immune-compromised women. The woman who slept next to me in my dormitory was in her late 60s, if she was on Rikers still she would be in a 50-bed dormitory sharing five toilets and three phones with 49 other inmates. Those dorms are a petri dish for infection from coronavirus.

During this unprecedented outbreak, medical considerations need to take precedence over correctional ones. Social distancing is simply impossible in jail. Rikers Island itself is 0.64 square miles, with thousands of inmates in close proximity inside eight inmate facilities. Even in the best of times, detainees live with poor ventilation and low ceilings, many in large dormitory-style rooms, with 50 beds only a few feet apart. Sinks are often broken, food preparation areas are dirty, cleaning supplies inadequate. Soap and paper towels are scarcely restocked and hand sanitizer, a crucial tool in the fight against infection, is considered contraband due to the alcohol content. Covering your mouth while coughing is impossible to do while handcuffed. Coronavirus requires a reduction in staffing, limiting their staff to only essential personnel which makes all of these problems worse. Visiting and programming has been suspended and the Corrections Officers’ union is demanding more stringent testing and precautions be put in place. A highly contagious disease of this magnitude will spread like wildfire throughout the confines of Rikers Island. 

More than 5,000 people are detained in New York City; thousands more staff the facilities. Those staff live in our communities; they have families. And people who get sick in jail don’t stay there forever. The more infection runs rampant in the New York City jails, the more it will continue to leak out into New York City streets, making containment and suppression impossible. 

As someone who was formerly incarcerated, I don’t often see things from the perspective of correction officers. However, they have done a magnificent job continuing to risk their lives and health reporting for work. Releasing more inmates would also help them, as fewer inmates on the island would require fewer officers to report for shifts. Not only would this action increase the safety for inmates, it would also relieve officers and their family who risk their health to come to work. 

Inmates must be escorted by officers wherever they need to go inside the facility. When I was incarcerated, without staff shortages, this process could take hours if it happened at all. Twenty-three percent of all medical and mental health appointments are missed because DOC does not deliver individuals to their appointments. If you get escorted, seeing a doctor can often result in extreme wait times. I once spent 24 hours in the waiting room vomiting bile in order to see a doctor. I can only imagine how overloaded they are now, faced with this pandemic. 

People at Rikers are going to die in this outbreak. Those infected there will spread the disease to and from the rest of the city. The only way to limit the amount of damage is to remove as many people as possible from these extraordinary conditions, before this disease has ravaged the jail population. The only time to do this is now, if we wait too long we could release carriers into the population instead of healthy people. 

Moreover, the risk of releasing detainees is also reduced during quarantine. Drastically reducing social interaction will also drastically reduce the risk of criminality. And releasing half the people at Rikers would still leave thousands of people in jail, surely enough to cover the most dangerous cases. There are at least 1,500 detainees and inmates currently at Rikers Island for low-level offenses who could be released immediately.

Time and again during this outbreak, we have seen politicians ignore public health experts and take half-measures only to see the risks explode and drastic policies be implemented too late to do enough good. The medical team serving New York City’s detainees have taken the extraordinary and necessary step of publicly demanding a drastic reduction in the jail population. If the mayor does not listen, people will die.