Criminal Justice

Rising calls to free incarcerated New Yorkers

A limited release of Rikers Island inmates may not halt a coronavirus outbreak.

Following increasing coronavirus cases at Rikers Island there is a call for the temporary release of prisoners to help curb the outbreak.

Following increasing coronavirus cases at Rikers Island there is a call for the temporary release of prisoners to help curb the outbreak. Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

Activists and public health experts have been sounding the alarm in recent days on the dangers of coronavirus spreading in jails and prisons across New York state. While New York City is preparing to release several dozen inmates from Rikers Island as soon as Friday, it may not be enough to prevent a wider outbreak.

The situation has become especially acute following the first confirmed coronavirus case for an inmate on Rikers Island as well as multiple cases among corrections officers there. “It’s to everybody’s advantage to get them out,” said Robert Cohen, a medical doctor who sits on the city Board of Correction. “You can maintain public safety while releasing lots of people.”

Activists and some elected officials have said that the city and the state should being releasing older and infirm inmates as well as people serving relatively short sentences. Local governments in Los Angeles and Cleveland have released hundreds of inmates from jail in recent days, but it remains to be seen whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo or New York City Bill de Blasio will embrace the idea enough to free hundreds of people from city and state jails and prisons. 

At a Friday morning press conference in the Capitol, the governor did not address outstanding questions about health protocols in prisons or whether he is currently considering clemencies or releases. A running tally by Politico New York of Cuomo’s emergency action does not include any related to jails or prisons.

Meanwhile, the governor is considering major changes to the criminal justice system that activists say would increase the number of incarcerated people. The governor is aiming to amend last year’s bail reform in the state budget process, an effort that activists and some lawmakers are trying to stop. 

Such efforts continued Thursday through a digital press conference organized by black activists. Proposed changes to bail reform would grant judges more discretion in deciding which criminal defendants are too dangerous to be released pretrial. Activists say that would reinforce racial disparities in jails and prisons. “We are calling on black leaders to hear the call: no rollbacks, not ever, but certainly not now,” said Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance. “We are desperately asking you to stay on our team. There’s nothing else to say, we’re either going to save black lives or we’re not.” Human Rights Watch also sent a memo to state lawmakers on Friday urging them to resist changes, especially considering the implications for public health.

The city and state have dealt with disease outbreaks before in jails and prisons, including H1N1 in 2009 and tuberculosis in 1991, which killed more than a dozen people. “The control of that epidemic was done through testing (including mandatory testing of guards) and isolating people who were positive,” Cohen said of the 1991 outbreak. “That is the same approach that has to be done right now.”

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