The city’s plan to close the Manhattan Detention Center downtown and a Rikers Island facility by the end of November is “a recipe for disaster” given the potential for a second wave of the coronavirus to sweep through the city, the head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Benny Boscio Jr., said.
His counterpart at the Correction Captains’ Association, Patrick Ferraiuolo, agreed, saying that despite the reduction in the prisoner population, any consolidation “poses a real danger to staff as well as inmates.”
Mr. Boscio said that by announcing the closings, the city and the Department of Correction had disregarded union officials’ counsel, including through testimony before the City Council and even the State Senate, that the surest way to prevent the virus from overrunning the jails was to spread out the inmate population.
“Now is the time to leverage our low inmate population to decrease the density in our facilities,” he said in a statement.
Inmate Numbers Plummeted
In an Oct. 9 letter to DOC employees, Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann and Chief of Department Hazel Jennings said “centralizing” inmates within the city's seven other jails “will not result in more densely populated housing units.”
They said that “bed utilization efficiency rates” would not be “significantly” altered with the closings. Roughly 750 total inmates are held at the Manhattan Detention Center, the two-tower complex on White St. also known as The Tombs, and the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, the 35-year-old Rikers facility that will also close.
“We are also taking advantage of the significant reduction in our current and projected jail population to continue closing older facilities that pose the most pressing administrative and structural problems,” Commissioner Brann and Chief Jennings said in their letter. “This will allow us to consolidate our efforts in better facilities, reduce overtime, expand training and programs, and continue investing in enhancing safety.”
The DOC said it had thousands of vacant beds, including within entire housing units, and that the closings would therefore not increase population density.
Although plans to close Rikers in favor of four borough-based jails have been slowed by the city’s fiscal difficulties, the jail population has plummeted since the start of the year. As of mid-October, about 4,400 detainees were in custody, down nearly 24 percent from 5,738 inmates on Jan. 1. City and state officials coordinated the release of hundreds of non-violent inmates as the virus gained a foothold in New York City, including within jails.
Limited Virus's Spread
Overall, however, it appears the DOC and its partner agency, Correctional Health Services, managed to contain the virus’s spread within environments conducive to the spread of contagious illness.
Inmates’ confirmed cases climbed to a high of 381 on April 27 before leveling off and then declining. As of Oct. 2, 242 inmates were confirmed as COVID-positive.
New admissions, symptomatic and confirmed-positive inmates have been kept separate and quarantined from the general population.
As of that same date, 1,433 DOC staff had contracted the virus, slightly up from a cumulative 1,415 in mid-June.
The DOC said it had not recorded an “in-custody transmission” since May 19.
Mayor de Blasio said the jail closings reflected the city’s aim to continue reducing the jail population, even with the number of inmates at its lowest level since the 1940s and despite a severe rise in violent crimes.
“So, we've driven down mass incarceration intensely and purposefully,” he said during his weekly “Inside City Hall” interview Oct. 12. “There may be a situation where there's something that has to be addressed in the near term, but the overall pattern is clear.”
Mr. Ferraiuolo said the decline in inmates reflected officials’ skewed thinking that endangers residents.
“The fact is, unfortunately, there are many people in the streets of New York that belong on Rikers Island and in the borough facilities while they wait to go to trial,” he said, adding that criminal-justice reforms, particularly laws that loosened bail obligations, amount to “failures.”
'Now is Not the Time'
On "Inside City Hall" two days later, Mr. Boscio, citing virus spikes in Brooklyn and Queens, reiterated his objections to the closings.
“The concern is major,” he said, adding that he had requested to meet with DOC and city officials about the consolidation. “Now is not the time to be talking about closing facilities...Now is the time to allow for social distancing and to spread out the population.”
Meanwhile, the DOC is planning to hold forums with employees to discuss the closings, presumably including staff reassignments “to other facilities and commands within the Department,” Commissioner Brann and Chief Jennings said, adding that they would be working with union representatives regarding those transfers.
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