coronavirus

Little Relief for Jails’ Most Vulnerable as Pandemic Grows

The Correction Department’s plan calls for moving inmates with COVID-19 into the West Facility on Rikers Island.
The Correction Department’s plan calls for moving inmates with COVID-19 into the West Facility on Rikers Island. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

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Michael Ames was hoping to be released from Rikers Island into a drug rehab facility earlier this week. Now he’s afraid he’ll die behind bars.

“It scares the devil out of me,” said Ames, 47, during a phone call from the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers.

“I’m a diabetic,” he added. “We’ve had a couple people in the dorm who have been coughing. They are not taking any approach to make sure these people aren’t really sick.”

Ames is one of 702 people currently in jail due to a technical parole violation. He was jailed on Nov. 6 after he was violated for “fraternizing” with another parolee — his girlfriend.

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters that 40 inmates have been identified for release soon based on their medical history and low public safety risk.

Around 10 detainees with cases in Brooklyn already have been freed from Rikers, according to source.

“We are balancing public safety with containing the spread of the virus and, so far, have consented to about half of the requests,” said Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. “Additional petitions are expected to be approved in the coming days.”

‘Storm Is Coming’

Advocates say more inmates should be let go.

“There are far more than 40 people detained in New York City jails whose health and well-being weighs in the balance as the coronavirus continues to spread. The mayor must take immediate steps to release all of them,” said an umbrella group of criminal justice advocates including the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, VOCAL-NY and #HALTsolitary Campaign.

On Wednesday night, Ross MacDonald, the jail system’s top doctor, took to twitter to warn that a “storm is coming,” and begged other city officials to release as many vulnerable inmates as possible.

“A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient,” he ended his twitter thread. “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.”

Meanwhile, former leaders in New York’s juvenile justice system joined a national coalition calling on officials to take “defensive action” and release youth detained at the city’s juvenile justice centers “who can be safely cared for in their homes.”

New York City’s two secure juvenile justice facilities, in The Bronx and Brooklyn, currently house nearly 100 children, ages 13 to 18. Most are being held as they await trial. Various studies have suggested juvenile detention centers contain some of the most medically vulnerable youth in the U.S.

The calls for release of detainees came as it was revealed that three correction officers and a jail captain have tested positive for the coronavirus.

A male inmate in his 30s also tested positive. Eight others who were in contact with him and have shown symptoms have been moved to the West Facility on Rikers where inmates are being isolated, Peter Thorne, a Department of Correction spokesperson, said in a statement.

State Resistance

Jails are especially dangerous places during an outbreak, with close quarters, many sick people and generally unhealthy conditions.  An estimated 500 prisoners in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, tested positive for COVID-19, according to reports.

Roughly 900 people behind bars in city jails are over 50, according to the Board of Correction, which oversees city lockups. The coronavirus has proved deadliest among older populations.

The Legal Aid Society says last Friday it gave state officials an initial list of 13 candidates for release who were jailed due to a parole violation like a missed curfew or failed drug test.

The Cuomo administration has so far scoffed at releasing anyone early from state prisons, according to defense lawyers.

“We should be able to do this,” said Lorraine McEvilley, director of Legal Aid’s Parole Revocation Defense Unit.

The Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx.
The Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx. Photo: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the state prison system that the department “continues to explore all available options to address the public health crisis and preserve public safety.”

This as administrative hearings on Rikers have come to a standstill due to concerns by defense lawyers worried about going to the tight quarters where they occur.

“We have a ticking time bomb,” said McEvilley, noting a jail investigator died after contracting coronavirus.

The Legal Aid Society submitted a new list of approximately 50 people to release to state officials Wednesday night.

“We need to have those conversations stat,” McEvilley said.

A Vulnerable Population

Chicago, Los Angeles, and Cleveland are among the places releasing vulnerable detainees.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said that incarcerated people seemed to be missing from New York City’s response to the crisis.

“It’s not people ‘over there,’ these are our families, these are our neighbors,” he said. “If you were going to describe what is the type of place that is worst to be in something like this, it’s Rikers Island.”

Robert Jereski, a Legal Aid attorney, said he has multiple adult clients in poor health who are jailed on parole violations. One has asthma and uses a cane due to circulation issues, and another is HIV positive.

“Even without the virus, these guys should not be where they are,” he said. “But with COVID-19 and what public health officials know and have warned about the risks there, continued detention is criminally negligent.”

Ames, of Rosedale, Queens, is praying he’s included on the early release list before matters worsen.

He spent nearly seven years in state prison and has never gotten into trouble during his close to three years on parole, aside from the current technical violation, state prison records show.

Ames said he’s currently housed in a unit with approximately 50 other inmates who sleep just a few feet apart. The commissary no longer sells bottled water, and inmates have never had access to hand sanitizers.

“I’m extremely worried,” he said. “I was a paramedic and I know about a health crisis. Rikers Island is not prepared.”

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