Rikers Island inmate dies from COVID-19

Cyril Josh Barker | 4/9/2020, 6:33 a.m.
The push to release more inmates from Rikers Island in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic has been heightened after ...
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The push to release more inmates from Rikers Island in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic has been heightened after an inmate died from complications from COVID-19.

Reports indicate the inmate is 53-year-old Michael Tyson who had been in custody since Feb. 28. He was awaiting a hearing on a parole violation. Tyson was receiving treatment at Bellevue Hospital after testing positive for COVID-19. The inmate had underlying health conditions.

Tyson is the first person to die from COVID-19 while jailed.

“Our deepest condolences go out to the detainee’s family in their time of grief,” the city’s Department of Corrections said in a statement. “The safety and well-being of those in our custody remains our No. 1 priority.”

Advocates are saying Tyson’s death is a clear example of the need for more inmates to be released from Rikers Island and that there be better conditions to contain the spread of coronavirus. Reports of unsanitary conditions include a lack of social distancing in correctional facilities and the lack of items such as hand sanitizer, which is considered contraband due to its alcohol content.

In an interview with the AmNews, activist Carmen Perez, who is the executive director of The Gathering for Justice, said jails continue to be a breeding ground for COVID-19.

“A technical violation should not be a death sentence,” Perez said. “If you look at the population, jails have disproportionate rates of 40% of incarcerated people suffering from a chronic health issue. Prison is not a place for anybody when they have not taken the proper measures from stopping the virus from spreading. We need to develop a strategy to make sure that people are not testing positive for coronavirus.”

Perez added that even though Mayor Bill de Blasio has released hundreds of inmates, more remain in custody and Gov. Andrew Cuomo should step in.

“We are both heartbroken and outraged to learn that our client, who was held on Rikers Island for a technical parole violation, has passed away from COVID-19,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at Legal Aid. “It is time for the governor to employ the full breadth of those powers and to act without delay to avoid further catastrophe.”

Tyson previously filed a lawsuit with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) challenging the automatic detention of people for parole violations in the city.

“This was a preventable tragedy. If he had not been automatically jailed over a mere alleged technical parole violation, he could still be with us today,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Phil Desgranges. “We’ve known for over a month that the crowded conditions at Rikers put people at serious risk of the coronavirus. Officials moved slowly and failed to release enough vulnerable people despite calls from across the city, state, and country.”

Clyanna Lightbourn of Citizen Action New York told the AmNews that there is still inadequate care in jails and that the corrections department continues to fall short.

“I am outraged,” she said. “[Tyson] should not have been there to begin with. It really hits close to home for many of us. His death says what we have been saying the whole time.”

One issue advocates are fighting for in jails and prisons is solitary confinement. According to the United Nations, prolonged solitary confinement is torture, and it creates underlying physical and mental health issues like heart disease that put victims uniquely at-risk from COVID-19. Experts in the medical, legal and human rights communities warn that solitary confinement is a dangerous response to COVID-19 and will exacerbate the spread of the disease.

“Solitary confinement is torture and is its own form of ongoing public health crisis,” said Scott Paltrowitz of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. People in solitary and their loved ones suffer immensely and face devastating medical and mental health harm. Solitary is associated with increased risks of heart disease, psychosis, self-mutilation, and far too often death. These are all underlying health conditions associated with increased mortality for COVID-19.