Caption:NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17: A view of the Rikers Island prison complex where Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is being held while awaiting another bail hearing on May 17, 2011 in New York City. Strauss-Kahn was arrested on May 14 on sexual assault charges stemming for an incident with a maid at a Manhattan hotel. Strauss-Kahn was expected to announce a presidential bid for France in the coming weeks. Strauss-Kahn was transferred to Rikers on Monday after a Manhattan Criminal Court judge refused to grant him bail. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Coronavirus spread in prison won't stay behind bars
05:35 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

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.

A security fence surrounds inmate housing on the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York in this 2011 photo.

New York City’s Department of Correction officials pushed back on some of these claims, arguing that the department’s efforts are working. Seventy percent of the agency’s facilities are less than half full and the number of symptomatic, quarantined inmates was decreasing, Commissioner Cynthia Brann said Tuesday at a public meeting.

“It’s a clear indication our containment strategies are working,” Brann said.

CNN spoke with several inmates, correction officers, advocates, city officials and law enforcement officials to get a picture of what has happened at Rikers since March 1, the day New York City reported its first coronavirus case.

Conditions on Rikers Island

It is difficult to tell if the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 among inmates in the city’s jail system is increasing or decreasing because the population is constantly shifting, with new arrests and inmates being released every day. People who have been arrested and did not get released on bail are brought to Rikers Island, nearly 88% of its population is there on a pretrial basis.

Correctional Health Services data showed a decrease in positive cases starting in mid-April. Most positive cases were coming from new arrestees entering the system, Chief Medical Officer Ross MacDonald said Tuesday. New arrivals who show symptoms and test positive are kept in a separate facility from those who are symptom-free, and the system is moving toward universal testing of new inmates, a Correctional Health Services spokeswoman told CNN.

“We’ve seen a dramatic change,” MacDonald said. “The most important intervention was a concerted effort at depopulation, which allowed us, I think, to do much better than many systems around the country despite having a broader epidemic that was more severe than anywhere in the country.”

But positive cases of coronavirus among correctional staff continue to increase. Correction officers tell CNN that their jobs have become more unsafe because of the virus.

“Every day, correction officers suit up and go in. Do we feel safe? I don’t think anybody feels safe,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the union that oversees nearly 10,000 correction officers in New York City. “We’re the epicenter of the epicenter.”

All workers began getting masks and gloves on April 3 at the start of each shift after unions sued the city for more protective equipment and testing. Some workers began getting masks as early as March 11 depending on where they worked, correction officials said at a Board of Correction meeting.

“We are taking every precautionary measure to keep our personnel and people in custody safe,” Peter Thorne, the top spokesman for the Department of Correction, the city agency that oversees Rikers, said in a statement to CNN when asked about unions’ lawsuits.

There are 10 separate jails on Rikers Island.

In the weeks since the city’s first confirmed coronavirus case, inmates on Rikers said they’ve been using whatever they can get their hands on to protect themselves from Covid-19 behind bars. They wrap their faces with do-rags and T-shirts when masks are not available and use shampoo to clean themselves when they can’t get soap. They employ alcohol pads from medical units and the barber shop to sanitize items that are shared among inmates, such as landline phones, and some put socks over the receivers.

Department of Correction officials said Tuesday they began giving masks to all people in custody on April 3, plus cleaning supplies and soap for free. Officials said masks are available for inmates as needed, in every housing unit.

“No staff member and no person in custody is being required to reuse masks,” Brann said.

But Claudia Forrester, a jail services advocate with Brooklyn Defender Services, said she continues to get calls from inmates claiming they don’t have access to supplies they need to keep themselves safe during the pandemic. Forrester is concerned correctional agencies are understaffed and ill-equipped to enforce their own policies, she said.

“We hear a very different story,” Forrester said during the public meeting Tuesday, which conducted via video conferencing. “Communication with those inside the walls makes it obvious that these procedures are not the lived reality.”

To get a handle on the reality, over two weeks in April, the city’s Board of Correction, which oversees the city’s jail system, had staffers observe inmates and correctional staff using surveillance footage. They found that 86% of correctional staff wore masks correctly, while inmates in common areas were seen wearing masks correctly only 17% of the time, auditors reported.

“Board staff observed people in custody not practicing social distancing, as they were sitting or standing close together in communal spaces such as dayrooms, especially around TV sets, phones, main doors, and during meals,” according to a report of the agency’s findings.

Officials encourage detainees to wear masks and practice social distancing, Thorne told CNN, but “we cannot force people in custody to comply.”

New York City has pledged to close down the troubled Rikers Island jail facility within the next few years.

Living and working in the jails

People in custody tell CNN they still sleep in beds that are a few feet apart, share phones that are not cleaned between uses, have trouble getting new masks and access to soap. There is also housing for inmates who test positive and show symptoms of the virus that allows them to be quarantined separately.

But inmates are not allowed to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which the CDC recommends for preventing spread of the virus, as it is considered contraband by the Department of Correction because it is flammable.

Luis Reyes, 34, who was detained after pleading not guilty to stealing a package, spoke to CNN in multiple 15-minute increments from a phone at a dorm-style jail facility on Rikers Island. The calls are free, but the phones – shared by all inmates in his unit – are a few feet apart.

“Sometimes, we clean the phones with alcohol pads. But there’s not enough,” Reyes told CNN. The Department of Correction told CNN it cleans phones every two hours. Board of Correction staffers observed phones being cleaned between inmate calls only 6% of the time, according to its April report. Inmates told CNN phones are constantly in use.

Wayne Pritchard, 51, was held in Rikers for a parole violation and released on April 27 after arguing he was at risk of developing complications of the virus. Inmates knew from watching the news that they needed face coverings to prevent themselves from getting sick, he said. When they didn’t get masks from correctional staff, they improvised.

“We took our do-rags and put them around our mouths,” he said. “We took T-shirts to cover our mouths.”

Since all in-person visits to Rikers Island were suspended on March 18, phones are the only way inmates can ask for help from those the outside. Several inmates told CNN they call family members or 311, the city’s help line, to report problems like soap shortages.

Kelsey De Avila, a social worker with Brooklyn Defender Services who normally visits inmates on Rikers Island, tries to do video visits with her clients, but it takes weeks to get a spot, she said.

“We cannot flatten the curve if we ignore the crisis that exists in our jails,” De Avila told CNN. “There are a number of people who are leaving these jails and coming back to our community.”

Among those moving in and out of jails are more than 11,000 Department of Correction employees.

About a week after the first jail system employee died on March 15 from Covid-19, a correctional officer on Rikers Island began feeling symptoms – a cough, headache and eventually a fever and trouble breathing, he said, speaking with CNN on the condition of anonymity because he fears losing his job.

“I’m touching all this mail, I’m delivering it to every single inmate,” said the worker, who takes mail to and from inmates at multiple units and said he didn’t get a mask to wear to work until March 19. “If I don’t have gloves and I’m touching all this stuff I still have to do my job either way.”

He called in sick from work toward the end of March and hasn’t been back since, the employee said. He has tested positive for Covid-19 three times and still had a fever nearly 40 days later.

Most people held at Rikers Island are awaiting trial.

Husamudeen said his union and others that represent jail workers have sued the city twice to get more protective equipment for workers, among other issues. Now, when correction officers start shifts, they are asked questions about possible Covid-19 symptoms, get their temperatures checked and are given a mask. The Department of Correction said it issued guidance in April requiring all staff, regardless of their posts, to wear a face mask, to have latex gloves and to practice social distancing when possible.

“We feel a degree of comfort in having the PPE (personal protective equipment) to try to keep us a little bit safer,” Husamudeen said. “But I don’t think anybody feels safe with this particular virus that they still haven’t gotten a grip on.”

Concerns about releases

On April 5, Michael Tyson, who was incarcerated on Rikers Island but was being treated for coronavirus by Correctional Health Services at a hospital, became the first inmate on Rikers Island to die from complications of the virus.

Correctional Health Services doctor, Rachael Bedard, who didn’t treat Tyson directly, wrote in a piece for The Washington Post, “We’d hoped to free him before he passed, but he wasn’t released before it happened.”

Tyson was being held on Rikers Island because of a technical parole violation, and his death prompted the Legal Aid Society’s attorney-in-charge of criminal defense Tina Luongo to warn, “As the virus reaches its apex, many more will succumb unless the Governor and (the state corrections agency) act immediately to address the humanitarian crisis in our jails and prisons.”

New York state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has been working to release technical parole violators from local jails across the state, a spokesman for the agency said. Those types of violations include failing to report to a parole officer or failing to report an address change. The governor called for the release of people being held on parole violations at the end of March.

The city’s Board of Correction began pushing to release thousands of inmates as soon as possible in mid-March, even before Tyson’s death. Those recommended for release were on Rikers Island on a pretrial basis, meaning they had not been convicted of crimes, were serving city sentences of 1 year or less, or were there because of state parole holds, board member Dr. Bobby Cohen told CNN.

By mid-May, more than 2,600 inmates were released from Rikers Island for reasons ranging from their parole holds being lifted to courts determining their underlying health conditions could put them at risk for Covid-19 complications. Correctional Health Services screens people who are presented by the Department of Correction before being released to identify anyone who should self-isolate and connects those who need a place to self-isolate with hotels, according to the health services agency.

But the city’s decision to release thousands of inmates from its jails due to the pandemic did not sit well with some law enforcement leaders and victims’ advocates.

Caption:NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17: A view of the Rikers Island prison complex where Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is being held while awaiting another bail hearing on May 17, 2011 in New York City. Strauss-Kahn was arrested on May 14 on sexual assault charges stemming for an incident with a maid at a Manhattan hotel. Strauss-Kahn was expected to announce a presidential bid for France in the coming weeks. Strauss-Kahn was transferred to Rikers on Monday after a Manhattan Criminal Court judge refused to grant him bail. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Inside New York's Rikers Island jail
01:13 - Source: CNN

“You know, we’ll be fluid and adapt to conditions as more people start coming out. You know, we’ll probably see crime rates ebb and flow in different areas, and we’ll be ready to respond accordingly,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said this week.

An NYPD official told CNN the department voiced concerns about inmates with violent backgrounds that the city wanted to release that, but that its concerns weren’t listened to. Since releases began in mid-March, about 150 inmates – all released because of the virus – have been rearrested, some multiple times, the NYPD official said.

Some have been rearrested for robberies, assault, violating orders of protection from domestic violence victims, narcotics charges and attempted rape, the official told CNN. Some released inmates with charges involving domestic violence allegedly have committed more domestic violence crimes against their previous victims, the official confirmed.

Less than 6% of those released offended again.

This troubles Dorchen Leidholdt, the director of the legal center at Sanctuary for Families, an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence.

“We understand the reason to release people at Rikers. We are supportive of that,” Leidholdt said. “The fact that there are defendants with domestic violence charges against them being released, where scrutiny is clearly not happening, that’s positively alarming.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday he was disappointed with those who have allegedly committed new crimes since being released from Rikers Island.

“I am convinced it was the right thing to do because we were thinking about the health and safety of everyone involved. And looking to save lives,” de Blasio said. “I’m disappointed in anyone who was shown mercy and turns around and commits an offense.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to give the correct percentage of inmates who offended again after getting released early because of coronavirus concerns.