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New York City officials are up against the clock deciding what to do with vulnerable inmates in the city’s jails, including the notorious Rikers Island, where a guard tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office told NY1 on Tuesday that they were “actively looking into the possibility of removing high-risk detainees” from the city’s jails. “We must ensure doing so maintains both their safety and the safety of others,” Freddi Goldstein said.
In the past few days, New York City has become the epicenter of the coronavirus in the U.S., with at least 1,330 confirmed cases and at least 10 deaths. And the number of cases continues to soar in all five boroughs. Now, a guard at Rikers has been infected, according to the union representing corrections officers in New York City. Rikers, with a population of more than 5,000 inmates, has a long-standing reputation for neglect, violence, and abuse — so much so that the facility is on track to be shut down entirely by 2026.
Earlier this week, the city’s jail oversight board called for the compassionate release of detainees at a high risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, such as people over 50 and those with underlying conditions. “The City must drastically reduce the number of people in jail right now and limit new admissions to exceptional circumstances,” the board said in a statement on Monday.
With its message, the board joined a growing chorus of activists and public defender’s organizations calling for new measures to protect inmates. As the novel coronavirus has rapidly swept communities across the U.S., fears have continued to grow about what would happen if the illness made its way into the nation’s prisons and jails, which are often overcrowded and squalid.
On Wednesday morning, a doctor caring for the oldest and sickest patients in New York City’s jails took to Twitter to escalate pressure on city officials to release vulnerable detainees.
“Last week I did something excruciating: I walked around from dorm to dorm talking to folks about coronavirus,” Dr Rachael Bedard wrote. “They asked, reasonably, what prevented me or another staff member, or an officer, bringing the virus into them. They know more than anyone that if the city isn’t safe, the jails aren’t safe.”
The Mayor’s office did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
The federal prison system has suspended in-person visitations for 30 days at its 122 prisons, and local jails and state prisons have followed suit, including the entire California Department of Corrections. California’s Department of Corrections took even more drastic measures and suspended rehab programs and classes like anger management.
In recent days, officials in Los Angeles County and Ohio’s Cuyahoga County have also released hundreds of inmates to slash their jail population and mitigate the potential for the virus to spread at its facilities.
But in some places, preventative actions from local or state officials could be too little, too late. For example, on Tuesday, an employee at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison in Ossining, New York, tested positive for COVID-19, NBC reported, triggering fears that the virus could be spreading among the inmate population.
Cover image: This Jan. 28, 2016 photo shows a solitary confinement cell known all as "the bing," at New York's Rikers Island jail. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)