Inside Rikers During the Coronavirus Outbreak

VICE News spoke with an inmate at Rikers who described conditions that were cramped and unsanitary.
April 8, 2020, 7:28pm

NEW YORK -- Health officials stress social distancing and hand-washing as key to stemming the spread of the coronavirus, but for the 4,000-plus inmates detained at Rikers Island in New York, that’s tough to do.

VICE News spoke with a Rikers inmate last week who described conditions there as cramped and unsanitary. Michael, who didn’t want his last name used, has been incarcerated on a nonviolent parole violation since January. He said his dorm has about 40 beds, and they’re only about 12 inches apart. And the people in his unit, as of last week, hadn’t received any cleaning supplies.

"They're not giving us any masks. They're not giving us any soap. They're not giving us any sanitizer. The stuff that they say they're giving us, they're not," Michael said.

The infection rate in New York City jails is about 10 times higher than that of the population in New York State at large. Recent statements from the Department of Corrections indicate they are working to keep all common areas clean and distribute supplies to inmates, and they’re asking staffers who come to work with symptoms of COVID-19 to go home and be cleared by a doctor before returning.

Michael says the corrections officers in his housing unit have all begun wearing masks.

The Legal Aid Society of NYC has filed several lawsuits against New York authorities demanding they release inmates who are vulnerable, pre-trial or in due to a technical parole violation. Over the weekend, a 53-year-old plaintiff in one of those lawsuits died from COVID-19. He was in custody at Rikers for violating his parole, but his attorneys argued he should be released because his underlying health conditions placed him at an increased risk of death if he contracted the virus.

Michael’s family can’t help but be very worried. "It's nerve-racking -- I'm on the phone, on hold, writing down numbers... I have to fax people, email people, to get their attention," said Debra, his mom. "He’s scared and he doesn't want to die in there."