COVID-19 behind bars in New York

COVID-19 behind bars in New York

As the COVID-19 outbreak leaves New York City at a standstill, officials must consider another population: those housed behind bars in jails and prisons. Jails are not great environments for containing an outbreak – they are crowded and don’t allow for social distancing, and facilities often take a very minimal approach when it comes to health care.

NYC DOC outbreak response

The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) and their medical service partner, Correctional Health Services (CHS), have taken steps to protect both DOC personnel and incarcerated individuals who are at high-risk for complications from COVID-19. Staff are provided with masks and can receive testing if they are symptomatic

Individuals in custody are supposed to be provided with masks. Those who may be at a higher risk for a serious case of COVID-19 are being housed in units that provide separation from general population, or units that provide increased medical attention.

The Eric M. Taylor Center for newly admitted inmates on Rikers Island has been reopened, as well as the Rose M. Singer Center for female inmates. Both serve at expanded capacity for those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The Manhattan Detention Center also has a dedicated intake area for those who do not have symptoms, so they can be monitored and housed properly.

According to an informational slideshow prepared by the DOC and CHS, 370 individuals had COVID-19 as of May 8. Cases peaked on April 27 with 381 people confirmed to be infected.  The slideshow also states that since the CHS reported the first case of the virus behind bars on March 18, the percentage of those in custody who have tested positive has ranged between 9 and 10 percent.

Critics say it’s not enough

Organizations like The Legal Aid Society (LAS), have been pushing for inmates to be released from jail facilities as case numbers increase. The LAS has filed several lawsuits in New York State Supreme Court on behalf of a number of individuals being held in Rikers. They’re calling on officials to release those held on non-criminal technical parole violations and those jailed on technicalities.

LAS says the rapid spread of COVID-19 makes Rikers “the epicenter of the epicenter” and a danger to those who are especially vulnerable for a serious case of the disease. For example, a 53-year-old inmate awaiting a parole violation hearing died in Bellevue Hospital in early April due to complications from a COVID-19 infection. He had been in custody since February 28 and was one of 100 detainees the LAS had been advocating for immediate release.

LAS’s Staten Island attorney-in-charge said any officials who fight against inmate release during the pandemic are out of touch with the reality inmates are facing. LAS argues that the Board of Correction continues to point out that the DOC does not provide adequate care for inmates, and even top DOC doctors have called for inmate release.

As of early April, about 900 inmates had been released and more were expected to be let go.

Medical roles understaffed statewide

Meanwhile, nearly one-quarter of medical staff positions in the state prison system are vacant, despite Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration declaring there are enough workers.

Approximately 315 medical staffing jobs are vacant, and those include doctors, nurses and physicians assistants positions.

The shortage comes as a number of prisoners statewide have died as a result of COVID-19 infection, and hundreds more cases have been confirmed, according to the DOCCS.