rikers island

The Secret Plan to Lock Down Coronavirus in NYC Jails

A punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
A punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Inmates sleeping head-to-toe, three feet apart. Detainees paid as little as $1 an hour to disinfect toilets and sinks. And video conferences for all court appearances.

Those are some of the key health safety measures on tap if the coronavirus outbreak spreads to Rikers Island and other city Department of Correction jails, according to an internal document obtained by THE CITY.

The 22-page plan addresses everything from making sure there’s enough food to feed some 5,400 inmates to readying a portable morgue for the worst-case scenario.

The department’s so-called Emergency Operation Center would be activated when the first case of coronavirus is reported in a Department of Correction jail.

The plan predicts that an outbreak would lead to a spike in officers and other staffers calling out sick.

“There may be limited support from outside as the borders and ports may be closed to decrease the spread of COVID-19,” the document warns.

Keeping a Distance

Among the coronavirus prevention measures outlined in the plan:

• Setting up “a fever watch point” at every entrance to all department facilities.

• Medical screening for all detainees at city courts before they’re placed into Correction Department holding pens. Any inmate complaining of flu-like symptoms would be given a mask, separated from others and transported alone to the Communicable Disease Unit at West Facility on Rikers Island.

• Jail staff handling the transfer and performing other “high risk procedures” would be given N-95 (Moldex 1200) respirators.

• Inmates in regular dormitory housing areas would be ordered to sleep head-to-toe and three feet apart to increase the breathable space between them. “Additionally, it will be recommended that all inmates maintain a three-foot distance whenever possible, and do not sit on anyone else’s beds,” the plan states.

• All court appearances, probation interviews and attorney meetings with clients would be handled via video teleconferences in one of the department’s 42 booths. Each booth must be sanitized after use and be placed three feet apart.

• Detainees would regularly disinfect everything from toilets to sinks to visiting areas. The inmates would receive training and be paid between $1 to $2 an hour.

Menu Planned

The department plans to keep a 10-day supply of food at all times — including three days of prepared meals, plus seven days of food “in various work in progress stages,” the report says.

Also, there must be three day’s worth of bread and milk, as well as a month’s supply of “beverage concentrate and coffee” in all facilities.

With kitchen staffers expected to call out sick, the menu would be modified to include “the use of convenience food and the department’s six to eight weeks supply of canned and frozen foods,” according to the document.

“Foods that required minimal preparation and handling would be chosen as menu items,” the plan says.

The report also details what will happen if multiple people behind bars die from the virus. The bodies might need to be put into a “portable morgue unit,” as opposed to being driven directly to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Manhattan.

In an effort to make it easier for staff to come to work, the department will offer free transportation from central spots in each borough. Those on duty will not be able to leave until another officer shows up to replace them.

Concern for Inmates and Officers

City Correction and health officials are expected Tuesday to detail precautions they are taking to protect staff and detainees at a hearing of the Board of Correction, the city jails’ oversight body.

Inmate advocates say they are concerned that people in jail will be neglected during the coronavirus crisis.

“Many of the actions that public health authorities recommend we take to protect ourselves and each other – such as thoroughly and frequently washing hands with soap, seeking physical distance from others, or finding medical care if experiencing symptoms — are available to incarcerated people only with the permission and overt assistance of their jailers,” Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, plans to testify before the board.

She noted that Chinese prison officials reported that over 500 coronavirus cases stemmed from the Hubei province prisons.

A former labor leader is urging city jail officials to do more.

“We need to test all the new admissions, but I can’t blame the Correction Department because we are not getting it on a national level,” said Sidney Schwartbaum, the ex-president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens’ / Deputy Wardens’ Association.

“If they don’t catch it in the incipient stages, it is going to spread like wildfire,” he added, “and to the point where it is uncontrollable.”

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.

SUPPORT THE CITY

You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.

We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.

Please consider joining us as a member today.

DONATE TODAY!