As coronavirus cases began spiking in New York City in March, officials worried that the city’s notorious jail system on Rikers Island could become a powder keg inside the epicenter of the pandemic.
In the weeks since, correctional officials handed out masks. They increased cleaning. And with a focus on creating more space for social distancing, the city pushed through the release from its jails of more than 2,600 people considered at low risk to commit a crime and high risk to contract the disease, with many of the inmates gaining their release through court decisions argued by advocacy groups.
Despite these efforts, critics say there is still not enough sanitizing, social distancing and wearing of masks to stamp out an outbreak among 362 people currently incarcerated and more than 1,300 Department of Correction workers, according to data released by the Board of Correction on Friday. Since March, three inmates and 10 correction workers have died, according to New York City’s Department of Corrections.
Across 37 states, 88 inmates and 15 correctional staffers died from Covid-19 between January 21 and April 21, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. In all, 4,893 inmates tested positive, as did 2,778 correctional staff.
“Jail is inherently not a place where you can socially distance. It’s just not built that way,” said Caitlin Miller, an attorney with Legal Aid Society’s parole revocation defense unit. “It was inevitable that coronavirus was going to get to Rikers, and once it did, it would be a complete disaster. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing.”
Law enforcement officials say releasing inmates to curtail a public health crisis behind bars has increased the risk of crime, with the New York Police Department reporting about 150 people released from Rikers having been rearrested, some more than once. Some crimes were violent offenses, including domestic violence and attempted rape, police said.
Advocates and a watchdog agency for the jail system contend that while correction officers wear masks, inmates don’t nearly as often. Correction workers also warn their jobs are more unsafe than ever, as the number of employees with the coronavirus continues to climb.