POPULATION CORRECTION: Nearly one-fifth of the city jails’ inmates, most of them from Rikers Island, pictured above, could be released as officials contend with a rising number of detainees and Department of Correction staff testing positive for the coronavirus.

More than 1,000 inmates could be released from city jails in the coming days as officials contend with the spread of coronavirus within the correctional system, Mayor de Blasio said Tuesday evening.

Inmates who were sentenced to a year or less, generally for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies, and who have been determined to not be a threat were to be released from the jails soon after the Mayor’s daily coronavirus briefing.

“It’s approximately 300 inmates and we will move to release those inmates immediately,” he said. 

200 Already Out

About 200 inmates had already been released as of Wednesday evening, the Mayor said.

Hundreds more inmates, including about 700 who are technical parole violators, another 100 who are being detained pretrial, and those who are over 70 years old and have any number of pre-existing conditions could also be released in the coming days, he said.  

Of the 700 parole violators, Mr. de Blasio said he and officials from the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice would be speaking with state officials and District Attorneys to determine their fitness for release.

“We‘ll be having that conversation to see if that is a group that can be acted on across the board,” he said.

The Board of Correction, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and several Council Members, including Brad Lander and Speaker Corey Johnson, along with dozens of advocate organizations, heightened their calls for city and state officials to thin the city jail population, which numbered about 5,300, March 24, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.  

37 Workers Have Virus

The Department of Correction said 75 inmates and 37 of its employees had tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday morning, more than three times the number just four days earlier.

The Legal Aid Society on Wednesday evening released an analysis showing that the infection rate in Rikers Island and other city jails is 14.5 per 1,000 people, or more than seven times the 2.05 per 1,000 rate in New York City as a whole, and 87 times the .17 rate of the entire country.

"Based on this analysis, New York City jails have become the epicenter of COVID-19," the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at Legal Aid, Tina Luongo, said.

The DOC and NYC Health + Hospitals, which oversees Correctional Health Services, declined to provide details on the number of inmates who had been isolated. H+H officials, citing "the developing situation," said they were "unable to provide quarantine numbers" or where those inmates were being held.

The Mayor said the jails’ reduced capacities would better allow distancing among inmates within what are densely populated environments. “We have space and we’re using the space we have to isolate and to create space,” he said. “There’s really intense focus to keep making adjustments.” 

Councilman Robert Holden, joined by 27 of his colleagues, wrote the Mayor March 24 asking that a testing facility and a screening station be established on Rikers. 

“Our Correction Officers put their health on the line each and every day, and they alone bear the burden of unknowingly spreading this highly contagious virus to their colleagues or inmates,” Mr. Holden said in a statement. 

Shea: ‘Humanitarian Need’

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea explained his and the Mayor’s approaches and decisions regarding the releases, saying they were united on striking a balance between “the humanitarian need” to release inmates who are at risk but "be mindful that there are real public safety concerns here. It’s not just one thing or another,” he said by phone during Mr. de Blasio’s briefing. 

The Commissioner said the NYPD's role in determining who was fit for release had been to look at lists of individuals and to drill down on their criminal histories. Individuals with other open cases than those that put them behind bars, and those with histories of domestic violence or sexual-assault cases, he implied, were unlikely to be let out. District Attorneys have their own concerns, he said. 

“You have to start with what's important, and you have to be a realist and you have to be humane. And I don’t think anyone wants to be in a position where we’re doing the wrong thing,” Mr. Shea said. 

Broadly speaking, he said, he “wants to see the maximum amount of people that we can safely get out, out,” he said. 

The Police Benevolent Association declined to comment on the potential releases, and the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association did not reply to an email seeking comment. COBA's president, Elias Husamudeen, last week said calls to release inmates were "asinine."

Jails ‘A Petri Dish’

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Johnson, the Council Speaker, said the situation within jails at Rikers “is getting worse and worse and worse.”

“It’s critical that the de Blasio administration move faster” to release more inmates, he said during a video teleconference hosted by several advocate groups. “The spread is happening even faster in close quarters such as Rikers Island,” including for Correction Department employees.

He also called on police to not make “unnecessary arrests” and thereby add to the jail population. “These are common-sense approaches that will flatten the curve,” he said. 

Mr. Williams, the Public Advocate, said Rikers was “literally a petri dish,” and chastised the Mayor and Governor Cuomo for not moving faster to release inmates. 

“No one was sentenced to death by viral disease,” he said. “There is cost and a human toll for inaction. Time is a luxury that we just don’t have.”


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