Minimizing Threat: The city is releasing hundreds of low-risk inmates from Rikers Island jails and other facilities to try and head off a widespread outbreak of coronavirus among detainees and staff.

Hundreds of inmates could be released from city jails as authorities contend with what threatens to become a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus among the prison population and Department of Correction staff. 

Mayor de Blasio on March 22 said the cases of 200 inmates, “primarily individuals with limited time left in their sentences,” were being reviewed by the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to determine if they were fit for release. The releases would follow those of dozens of inmates in recent days, including 23 that day, he said. 

Positive Tests Rise

According to the city’s Board of Correction, 21 inmates and 12 Department of Correction employees had tested positive for the virus as of March 21. The board noted that 58 inmates were “being monitored” in contagious-disease and quarantine units.

The Mayor’s announcement followed a renewed call from the BOC for criminal-justice authorities to thin the jail population to reduce the threat of extensive contagion inside the facilities. 

In a letter addressed to the city’s five District Attorneys, jail authorities and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, the BOC’s interim Chairwoman, Jacqueline Sherman, on March 21 urged that they work together to “immediately release” inmates who were at high risk of contracting the disease. She also called for the release of inmates being held for administrative reasons, such as for probation violations and positive drug tests, and those serving sentences of one year or less. 

“Fewer people in the jails will save lives and minimize transmission among people in custody as well as staff,” Ms. Sherman wrote. “Failure to drastically reduce the jail population threatens to overwhelm the City jails’ healthcare system as well its basic operations.”

Mr. de Blasio, though, said the board’s rationale for which inmates should be released and why did not jibe with his administration’s. 

“Within each of those categories, there are real variations and real differences from inmate to inmate in terms of criminal record and other factors. So, it's just not, bluntly, as that letter portrays,” he said during the Sunday briefing. “We need to ensure that the people we’re releasing we feel relative comfort are not likely to re-offend or do serious crimes, because we have to balance all of the factors here.”

‘A Storm Is Coming’

The Mayor deflected questions about reports that dozens of Rikers inmates had engaged in a work-stoppage and refused to eat, saying officials “don't have confirmation of the specifics.”

But in a series of tweets March 18, the city’s Chief Medical Officer with Correctional Health Services, Ross MacDonald, warned the virus could overrun the jails if officials did not immediately decrease the jail population. 

“A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient. What will you be doing?” he said. “What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”

Ms. Sherman suggested hundreds more inmates need to be considered for release. Among those, she identified 666 who were being held “solely” for technical parole violations, including 189 who are over 50 years old and therefore more susceptible to contracting the virus. Another 811 inmates were being held on an open case and a technical parole violation who “also should be reviewed for immediate release.” 

According to her letter, 551 people in DOC custody were serving a so-called “City Sentence” of under one year for low-level offenses. “The Mayor must use his executive powers to release these people,” she wrote. 

There were roughly 5,300 inmates in city jails at the time of her letter.

Dozens of inmates were already released from city jails beginning March 20, following calls earlier in the week from the Board of Correction, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and others that the Mayor, Governor Cuomo, District Attorneys and others work to immediately identify inmates who were at higher risk of contracting the virus.

The Mayor said the ”basic approach” was for the city officials, including the police, to identify those inmates who were considered a low risk of re-offending. Those considered threats to the community or considered likely to re-offend would not be released, he said.

The Mayor also said city officials were working to establish which inmates might be particularly vulnerable to 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 Department of Correction did not respond to inquiries about where those inmates could potentially be housed. 

‘Limit the Spread’

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 pre-existing 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 a March 17 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,” he said.

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 March 17 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.

'Stop Admitting' 

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.

Following the first documented positive test of a Federal inmate, at the Metropolitan Detention Center March 21, elected officials and others, including Congress Members Jerrold Nadler, Nydia Velázquez and Hakeem Jeffries called for U.S. Attorneys and Federal Court officials to collaborate to identify and then release “at-risk” individuals, including older inmates and those who have health conditions that could compromise their ability to withstand an infection. 

About one-third of the 570 people detained at the MDC fall into those categories, according to officials. As many as 200 others being held at high risk were detained at the Manhattan Correctional Center.


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