NYC district attorneys alarmed by accounts of horrible conditions at Rikers amid coronavirus outbreak

Entrance to Rikers Island. (James Keivom/New York Daily News)

The city’s five district attorneys are bewildered by inmate accounts of horrendous conditions at Rikers Island during the coronavirus pandemic — which, they say, raise serious questions about management of the jail complex as its population dwindles to historic lows.
Lawsuits filed by the Legal Aid Society seeking the release of more than 250 inmates describe a lack of soap and poor hygiene behind bars amid the outbreak. In one episode, an inmate reported that six other inmates were transferred out of his dorm after testing positive for coronavirus. The area had not been cleaned a day after the sick inmates were removed, according to the suit.
Yet the city’s jail population has dropped by about 1,000 people since the suits were filed — making some prosecutors wonder why conditions still don’t seem to be getting any better.
“Legal Aid’s main contention is that the conditions at Rikers are horrendous. Our question is why? Is it a staffing issue? A resource issue? Is the only answer to release people?” a Manhattan prosecutor involved in the review of inmates proposed for release told the Daily News.
The concern, detailed in a letter signed by the district attorneys and the special narcotics prosecutor, hints at a disconnect between City Hall and law enforcement during the pandemic.
The letter suggested that the shrinking population at Rikers Island — which has dipped to about 4,500 — should mean more room to spread out and follow social distancing guidelines and improved access to medical care.
“We have reviewed numerous requests for the release of individuals in New York City jails, with the goal of reducing health risks in a manner consistent with public safety," the letter read. "We are writing ... to ask that you immediately reassure the public and the courts that the city’s jail system is capable of appropriately managing the health needs of the remaining inmates.”
“Even at this difficult time, our society must have the ability to safeguard those who are incarcerated, to avoid violating their rights or endangering the community. In short, we should not have to make release decisions that we know will put communities at risk,” the letter continued.
One person in custody at the newly reopened Eric M. Taylor Center at Rikers — and who tested positive for coronavirus — told The News that the jails have not been sanitized and no on has taken his temperature in more than a week.
The city Correction Department “does not have a handle on the situation,” said the man, whose name is being withheld due to concerns about retaliation for speaking out. “It’s filthy, we don’t have anything to disinfect, everyone is coughing ... we’re all on Death Row here.”
Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, defended the city’s efforts to ensure the safety of people behind bars — but said Correctional Health Services can only do so much to stem the outbreak.
“We are well aware that congregate settings, particularly jails, are vulnerable to contagion,” Glazer wrote in a letter Wednesday.
“As the crisis rapidly evolved ... city public health experts scanned the entire jailed population, no matter the reason for incarceration, prioritizing those who meet public health criteria for heightened medical vulnerabilities," she continued. "We sought [the district attorneys’] counsel to review those identified so that you could be in a position to better advise the courts and take swift steps to obtain releases where appropriate.”
The Manhattan prosecutor involved in the review of inmates was troubled by the Correction Department’s claims in court filings that it was complying with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as it released inmates to curb the outbreak.
Law enforcement sources have also raised concerns about public safety.

“We’re talking about serious crimes committed — violent felony offenders,” an NYPD source said. “This was done not in the most organized way.”

The Correction Department has released about 370 low-level offenders serving city sentences of a year or less. About 150 people awaiting trial were released between March 18 and March 30 with judges’ approval, according to a Center for Court Innovation report last week.

“The Department of Correction is doing everything we can to safely and humanely house people in our custody amid the broader COVID-19 crisis. Even with these efforts and the world-class medical care in our facilities, it is a simple clinical fact: public health is better served with fewer people held in our jails," department spokesman Peter Thorne said.

Board of Correction member Robert Cohen said prosecutors who question why conditions are so bad in city jails should focus instead on releasing more people.

“The district attorneys should spend their time — as I hope they are — working to get them out rather than making a judgment they know nothing about,” he said. “But it’s not just them. Every judge in New York should be given the names of all the people they put in Rikers Island and see who of them they could release.”

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