Dozens of inmates could be released from city jails as early as this evening, Mayor de Blasio said during an afternoon briefing on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic within the five boroughs.
The Mayor's announcement followed calls earlier this week from the city Board of Correction, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and others that he, Governor Cuomo, District Attorneys and others work to immediately release inmates who were at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.
40 Inmates IDd
"Forty inmates have been put on the list," he said Thursday afternoon, referring to an effort by the NYPD and the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice to identify inmates who could safely be released. "We are awaiting on the sign-off, depending on the case, from the relevant District Attorney and/or the State of New York, and we intend to begin releases as early as today."
He suggested that more releases could follow. "Once we have that sign-off, we will continue reviewing other cases," he said March 19.
The ”basic approach” was for the city officials, including the police, to identify those inmates who are considered a low risk of re-offending, which would include a number of inmates awaiting trial and serving a “city sentence” of a year or less. Those considered threats to the community or considered likely to re-offend will not be released, he said.
The BOC and the Public Advocate said it was critical that some inmates, including those deemed low-risk, be released to minimize what is widely thought to be a certain outbreak within the jail system. Mr. de Blasio seemed to agree, saying those calls included “very fair and important questions” regarding jails’ particular susceptibility to the spread of the virus.
The Mayor said at the time city officials were working to establish which inmates might be particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19, and suggested that they could be separated from the general prison population. He said then that no final decisions had been made on how those inmates might otherwise be housed, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the NYPD were considering releasing inmates who “are at a low risk of re-offending.”
“We’re going to evaluate those numbers and the details, and determine if case by case any of those individuals should be taken out of our jail system,” he said during an early-afternoon press briefing on the virus. “This evaluation is happening today.”
The BOC also advocated for limiting the number of new detainees to reduce the potential for a widespread outbreak within city jails. During his March 17 briefing on the city's response to the virus, the Mayor said that anyone who was arrested and had flu-like symptoms would not be taken to a precinct or to Central Booking, but would instead be processed via video-conferencing. “There will be a very specific methodology limiting their contact with our first-responders,” presumably including police, he said of arrestees.
Although the Board of Correction, an independent nine-member panel with oversight of the city’s jail system, commended the Department of Correction and the Correctional Health Services for their “heroic work” in the face of the pandemic, it said releasing inmates with preexisting conditions who are most susceptible to the virus was imperative.
“Significantly fewer people in jail will limit the spread of COVID-19 infection among people in custody and those who work in the jails, minimize the number of people in custody who will need medical care, decrease the density of housing areas for people who remain in jail, and allow New Yorkers to maintain connections with and support from their loved ones,” the board said in its statement.
The president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Elias Husamudeen, called the BOC’s demands “asinine” and “beyond irresponsible.”
“It’s very sad that we have to remind the Board of Correction that their mandate, per the city’s Charter, is to advocated for the welfare of everyone in the Correction Department, not just the inmates.”
Mr. Husamudeen suggested the BOC would be better placed to call for city officials to provide for more masks, gloves and other vital supplies for officers. “Correction Officers’ lives matter too.”
A DOC Inspector succumbed to complications from the virus March 15. The department the next day said that “anyone who was in close contact with this individual has been notified and appropriate precautions taken,” but did not reply to an inquiry seeking details on the extent of that person’s contact. A DOC spokeswoman Tuesday afternoon said “we have no cases of coronavirus within the jails or afflicting staff.”
The department announced that day that it would be suspending in-person visits effective March 18.
The Board, though, reproached the DOC and CHS for not updating the respective agencies’ plans for preventing the virus’s transmission within the jails. It also requested that the two agencies “increase and improve communication” with inmates, staff and the public.
Cite Los Angeles Example
The BOC’s statement said that, along the Mayor and Governor, the DOC “must work” with relevant agencies and the state court system to prioritize the release of inmates over 50; those with underlying health conditions, such as lung and heart disease, diabetes, cancer or a weakened immune system; those serving one year or less; and those being detained for administrative reasons such as failures to appear and parole violations.
“The City must begin this process now,” the board’s statement said. “The City’s jails have particular challenges to preventing disease transmission on a normal day and even more so during a public health crisis.”
It cited the example of Los Angeles County, where local police departments and the Sheriff’s Department have been told to issue citations instead of making arrests. According to the Los Angeles Times, the jail population countywide dropped by 600 since the directive was issued this week.
Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez and his counterpart in Manhattan, Cyrus Vance Jr., were among 31 District Attorneys from throughout the nation who signed a statement, also released March 17, urging officials, including prosecutors, “to stop admitting people to jail” unless they posed a serious threat. They also said steps should be taken “to dramatically reduce detention and the incarcerated population.”
The statement, also signed by Ulster County DA David Clegg and Albany County DA David Soares, noted that those 55 and over represent the fastest-growing inmate demographic. Epidemiologists have said people over 60 are vulnerable to the virus. It also said that jails and prisons “house disproportionately large numbers of people with chronic illnesses that many facilities are already ill-equipped to treat.
Mr. Gonzalez tweeted that “in the interests of public health and safety,” his office “would immediately decline to prosecute low-level offenses that don’t jeopardize public safety.” He also said his office would consider requests from public defenders to release clients in pre-trial detention who might be vulnerable.
A spokesman from the state Unified Court System did not say whether the BOC’s call had been addressed by the Chief Judge. “Defense attorneys are free to make whatever applications they like to the Court,” he said in a statement. “Judges will rule on those individual judicial determinations as they do in any other circumstance.”
A spokeswoman for Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark referred to her office’s policy of not prosecuting low-level, non-violent offenses, adding: “We are working with the city and the defense bar to evaluate cases of individuals at high risk.”