“What we hear now is, ‘Everyone is getting sick. “”
For months, Elizabeth Fischer and other New York City public advocates have advocated for the release of inmates from the notorious Rikers Island prison, highlighting documented issues with corrections staffing and care timely medical. But even in a particularly violent year behind bars – 16 people have died in the city’s prisons, the highest number since 2016 – these arguments have not always been very conclusive.
What’s new right now, she said, is a level of anxiety and fear reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, fueled by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus in New York and the United States. -of the.
“What could we do well?” What haven’t we tried? Fischer, an attorney for the Neighborhood Defender Service in Harlem, asked in an interview.
After a terrible warning Tuesday from the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) commissioner about an increase in COVID-19 cases among Rikers Island inmates, lawyers representing the incarcerated defendants question why the alarm didn’t was not rung earlier. They also painted a portrait of a population particularly vulnerable to a new variant, a population that even tripledly vaccinated residents outside prison walls and living in fear.
“This variant hit at a time when the Rikers medical system was collapsing,” Corey Stoughton, lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, told The Daily Beast. “This is just one of the things that makes it such a disaster. “
Stoughton, who said the majority of her clients are incarcerated at Rikers, added that over the past six months she had heard an “endless stream” of complaints about violence in prison and the lack of medical care. But in recent days, she has heard from more clients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are now concerned that they may not be getting the attention they need.
“We are very concerned that as these infections start to escalate,” she said, “the system will not be able to provide care. “
The concern is shared by experts, who say tight spaces, less than ideal security protocols, low rates of inmates vaccinated in the prison and a propensity of inmates to have underlying health issues could produce a grim situation. “It’s kind of a powder keg for an out-of-control coronavirus outbreak,” Seth Prins, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told The Daily Beast.
In a letter released Tuesday, Vicent Schiraldi, commissioner of the New York City Corrections Department, said that while much of New York City could be spared the worst effects of Omicron due to high vaccination rates, only 45% of detainees at Rikers received only one vaccine. cut.
Schiraldi added that earlier this month, prison positivity rates had remained stable around 1%. But on Monday it had jumped to 9.5% and on Tuesday it was 17%.
According to data from Correctional Health Services, the municipal agency responsible for medical care in local prisons, the rate had risen to 21.5% on Wednesday. In a statement to the Daily Beast, a spokesperson for Corrections Health Services said they have not yet had a “lab-confirmed” case of the Omicron variant, but they noted an increase in positive cases as the variant has spread locally. The CDC recently estimated that the new variant accounted for about 73% of all cases nationwide.
The worrying increase indicates that “the risks to the human beings in our care are at a critical level,” Schiraldi wrote in his letter. “All indications suggest that our prison population faces an equal or greater level of risk from COVID now as at the start of the pandemic.”
In his letter, Schiraldi said the DOC was doing everything possible to limit the spread of the virus, including by suspending assembly services and in-person visits. But he implored public defenders to ask the courts to consider “all available options” to reduce the prison population, including asking for supervised release, seeing if cases can be resolved with modified sentences or asking for the release of the people. having underlying health problems.
In a statement provided to the Daily Beast, the Corrections Department said it continues to encourage those in detention to get vaccinated. A spokesperson highlighted messages in weekly newsletters, posters, flyers and a $ 100 police station credit and $ 100 grocery gift card for someone of their choice in the community, as well. as video messages on tablet from Dr Anthony Fauci, Orange is the new black author Piper Kerman and Mets legend Mookie Wilson.
Responding to concerns about staff shortages and access to medical services, the release noted data from early December that showed signs of “gradual improvement” in rates of use of force by correctional staff and violence among correctional staff. the inmates. The statement also highlighted the increase in immunization rates among correctional staff and said as of December 6, 83 percent of correctional staff were vaccinated and 93 percent of non-uniformed staff were.
Fischer, the Harlem lawyer, said Schiraldi’s letter was “surprising” but added that “at the end of the day the power is not in our hands to liberate people”, nodding in front of him. the disproportionate role of prosecutors.
In a statement to the Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Queen’s District Attorney’s Office said they are currently reviewing the cases to see if the defendants can be released “without compromising public safety.” This includes examining advanced cases where defendants can be convicted or argue for transfer to state prison, sentence served or other alternatives, they added.
A spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office told the Daily Beast that they are constantly evaluating the possibility of releasing the defendants throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so. In a statement to the Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said that in light of the recent Rikers outbreak, they “will review cases where bail has been set, with the aim of recommending the release of certain persons accused of offenses or non-violent crimes which do not present a clear threat to public safety.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
Ilona Coleman, legal director of criminal defense for the Bronx Defenders, said that while district attorneys play an important role in helping clients get released from Rikers, judges also play an important role in the equation.
While Coleman appreciated Schiraldi’s letter earlier this week, she also wondered what public defenders could do differently to convince judges to release detainees based on COVID-related arguments which she says have so far been less than effective.
“A lot of times in our bail applications the judges even prevent us from making this argument,” she told the Daily Beast. “There is a real contempt on the part of the judiciary when it comes to arguments surrounding the COVID-19 crisis on Rikers Island and what is happening there. “
In addition to requesting a bail review in cases that have already passed the initial processing stage, Coleman said, the only other option lawyers have is to seek a habeas corpus order. In these cases, the argument is that due process of an inmate was violated due to the conditions of his detention and a deliberate indifference of the Correctional Department to his state of health.
But Coleman said those arguments often fell flat before the judges and that she was “extremely skeptical” of developments, even after Schiraldi’s letter.
“Whatever goes on inside Rikers is very likely to make matters worse for New York City as a whole.“
– Seth Prins
Omicron is far from the first threat to threaten New York City prisons this year.
Since the summer, Rikers Island and the Department of Correction as a whole have faced a massive shortage of correctional officers, as well as viral videos of inmates being attacked with little help from guards and officials. concerns of a federally appointed judicial supervisor regarding the safety of inmates. . Access to medical care has also been a lingering concern, according to Stoughton, the legal aid lawyer.
In a September letter obtained by The Daily Beast, Ross MacDonald, chief medical officer of Correctional Health Services – the municipal agency responsible for medical care in local prisons – wrote to the New York City Council and the Criminal Justice Committee asking for “urgent assistance”.
In the letter, MacDonald urged the council to seek outside help to “stabilize a situation which has resulted in death and threatens the health and well-being of all who work and reside in the city’s prisons.” MacDonald cited the slow processing of new prison admissions and the overcrowded pens where people are held “for days.”
He also warned that the prison was “poorly placed” to control the transmission of COVID: “In many cases, we are not able to transfer newly diagnosed patients to places of isolation for more than 24 hours and sometimes several days after diagnosis. “
MacDonald said the plans to deal with the absent correctional officers were a good start, but they were not sufficient to meet the “urgency” of the situation. “Quicker intervention is needed to minimize further injuries, illnesses and loss of life, which requires outside help. Decarceration efforts, which are a proven public health response to COVID-19, have not been significantly continued since 2020. The city is instead focusing on handling cases through the courts, a slow and unresponsive remedy not to the urgency of the moment either. “
MacDonald did not respond to a request for comment.
Columbia epidemiologist Prins said he believes the days and weeks ahead could be troubling for Rikers, as well as New York, if the population is not reduced and safety protocols are in place. .
Even though the city and much of the country have been spooked by the new variant, hopes that it may turn out to be less serious have been bolstered largely by robust local vaccination rates, with many residents receiving injections. reminder. The situation behind bars is much more urgent, and the high transmission rate of Omicron, even among vaccinated individuals, could cause problems for the rest of the largest city in the United States.
After all, correctional officers don’t live on the island.
“Anything that goes inside Rikers is very likely to make things worse for New York City as a whole,” he said.