COVID-19 behind bars

Cyril Josh Barker | 4/2/2020, midnight
The contraction rate of coronavirus on Rikers Island is seven times higher than the rest of New York City. Even ...
Rikers Island

The contraction rate of coronavirus on Rikers Island is seven times higher than the rest of New York City. Even though Mayor Bill de Blasio released 300 Rikers Island inmates from the city’s jails in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some say it’s not enough.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is calling for answers and accountability in a letter to the New York City Department of Correction after complaints to the office and public reporting on the inadequacies and dangers of the response to COVID-19 on Rikers Island.

In the letter, the Public Advocate cites reports that social distancing policies are being violated and that incarcerated individuals and staff are not given supplies to sanitize spaces even as the outbreak continues to grow. He questions the criteria to make one eligible for release, the status of PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies and the medical treatment available for those inside.

“While your current efforts to curb the impact of COVID-19 within our jails are noted, I still believe there is much more to do to curb the preventable rise of COVID-19 cases within Rikers,” Williams said.

Family members of those incarcerated and advocates hosted a virtual press conference on Monday with COVID-19 community demands for inmates in New York State prisons. The group called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to use his executive clemency power to immediately release older people and others in prison who are vulnerable to the virus.

The group also called on the State Board of Parole to release similarly vulnerable people from prison, and to expedite parole interviews for parole-eligible people who are vulnerable to the virus.

“My husband doesn’t want to go to medical or go get food in prison because people aren’t wearing masks or protected.” said Theresa Grady, whose currently incarcerated husband is 65 years old and has serious health conditions. “The correctional officers aren’t protected. Gov. Cuomo, let them go. If you don’t, you will have a lot of deaths on your hands.”

Family members also want free prison communication that keeps families connected to health and medical practices and procedures that align with community, public health standards, including an end to prison-wide lockdowns and solitary confinement.

Kharon Benson’s father is currently incarcerated and was granted parole. His father had a set date to come out in 2017 until his parole decision was reversed.

“He is still fighting to come home,” Benson said. “A decision on his appeal was scheduled for last week. And now because of COVID-19, it’s been pushed back.”

This week, the city’s five district attorneys sent a letter to de Blasio and Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann to voice their concerns over how to responsibly release defendants from city jails to stop the spread of COVID-19.

While they believe those incarcerated should be treated humanely and should receive resources so that they can live in sanitary conditions and receive quality medical care, there should be a specific plan in place for treatment, oversight or supervision upon release.

The D.A.s are consenting to the release of a number of inmates and detainees and are still evaluating defendants.

“We cannot ignore in our assessment the seriousness of the crime for which an inmate is incarcerated, as well as the impact that their release might have on public safety,” said Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark. “Those who currently remain incarcerated are accused of the most serious violent offenses including murder, and their release will affect public safety.”