POLITICS
03/24/2020 19:12 EDT

Prisoners Are Being Transferred Directly Into A Coronavirus Outbreak At Rikers Island Jail

Dozens of people at Rikers have tested positive for COVID-19. Why is the city moving prisoners there from a nearby jail?

A man with asthma was transferred on Monday to Rikers Island, the infamous New York jail currently battling a coronavirus outbreak, from a nearby jail with no publicly reported cases. 

At least 38 people at Rikers have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, including 21 incarcerated individuals and 17 employees, NBC reported on Sunday. A New York City Department of Correction investigator who had tested positive for the coronavirus died last week. Corrections officers pepper-sprayed eight inmates at Rikers last weekend when they tried to go to a clinic to get their temperatures checked after learning about a potential COVID-19 case in their unit, The City reported. Defense lawyers have said that people incarcerated at Rikers sleep an arm’s length away from one another, are served food on dirty trays, and are being denied medical treatment when they request it. The union that represents corrections officers at Rikers and other NYC jails has said its members don’t have enough masks or gloves or access to COVID-19 testing. 

But the city’s Correction Department is continuing to transfer more prisoners into the crowded jail. On Monday, the man with asthma was moved from the Manhattan Detention Complex, which has no publicly reported coronavirus cases, to Rikers, where COVID-19 cases continue to rise. The man requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

“It’s senseless, INHUMANE, and goes against the health policies to prevent the spread of this virus,” Karen Correa, who is close to the man sent to Rikers, said in an email to HuffPost. The man told Correa that he was transferred with about two dozen other men from his “house.”

The transfers into Rikers fly in the face of widespread calls from health experts and advocates for the incarcerated to reduce jail and prison populations as the coronavirus outbreak spreads. And some city officials already agree. New York City’s Board of Correction has called for decreasing the jail population by releasing prisoners who are over 50 years old, have underlying health conditions, are being detained for administrative reasons (missing a meeting with a parole officer, for example), or are serving sentences of less than one year for low-level offenses. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has authorized the release of some people from Rikers.

Jails and prisons are especially dangerous places to be during a public health crisis. It is impossible for most inmates to follow recommended guidelines on social distancing, hand-washing and disinfecting surfaces. Incarcerated people tend to live, shower, eat and exercise in crowds. The types of cleaning products and hand sanitizers that are strong enough to kill the coronavirus are banned in most detention facilities. It is often hard for prisoners to get access to decent medical care, even under regular conditions. And conditions at Rikers are notoriously bad. 

Correa’s loved one heard from another prisoner last Friday that his entire house of inmates might get transferred to Rikers. He had already been moved between jails several times over the past few months as he awaits his court appearances for an appeal. He doesn’t usually complain, Correa said, but this time was different. He had heard about the poor conditions at Rikers and his asthma could put him at higher risk of getting very sick from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“The implications of sending vulnerable inmates like him to a clearly infested detention center is mind-boggling,” Correa wrote. “What is the end-game here?”

When the man asked a corrections officer on his floor at the Manhattan facility for a reason for the transfer, he was told not to “rile people up,” Correa said.

“Transfers between facilities are made based on safety and security considerations and can occur for any number of reasons,” Jason Kersten, a Corrections Department spokesman, said in an email. “For safety and security reasons, we do not comment on or confirm specific transfers.”

The department has confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses among 52 people in its custody and 30 employees — but it has declined to provide a breakdown by facility. Public defenders who have spoken to their clients inside Rikers expect the number of confirmed cases there to increase exponentially in the coming days. 

On Monday afternoon around 3:15, the man Correa is worried about and the rest of the prisoners in his house were told to pack up. The facility had been on lockdown that morning so he hadn’t had a chance to leave his cell to shower or call Correa, who was anxiously awaiting an update. The group of men being transferred boarded a bus to Rikers around 4 p.m. They didn’t get to their new house until around 8 p.m., he told Correa. By then, they had missed dinner. If they wanted anything to eat, they had to buy snacks with their commissary money. 

The transfer of new prisoners into Rikers is “perplexing, to say the least,” said Michael Skelly, a spokesman for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. Corrections officers still don’t have enough gloves or masks to protect themselves, the union official said. The Correction Department’s response to the coronavirus crisis is “ad hoc and unsettling,” said Skelly. 

Randall Unger, the lawyer who represents Correa’s loved one, said in an interview that he doesn’t understand why his client was moved to Rikers. The Correction Department “just transfers people at random, it seems. I’ve never known any rhyme or reason to the process,” Unger said. 

Another client at Rikers, a man charged with a nonviolent offense, has been unable to get medical attention for a cough and a fever, the lawyer said. 

“They’re treated like they’re not even human.”

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