New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail is in the midst of an “emerging Covid-19 crisis” as the number of confirmed Covid cases among inmates has exploded over the past 10 days, and nearly doubled from Monday to Tuesday, the head of the New York City Department of Correction said on Tuesday in a letter to judges, district attorneys and public defenders.
Until 10 days ago, the number of inmates testing positive for Covid hovered around 1% but on Monday, the rate had jumped to 9.5%, and on Tuesday, the rate rose above 17%, Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said in the letter, which was shared with CNN.
“All indications suggest that our jail population faces an equal or greater level of risk from COVID now as it did from the start of the pandemic,” Schiraldi said. “The combination of these data indicates that the risk to human beings in our custody are at a crisis level.”
The biggest jump in cases at Rikers happened from December 19 to December 20, where 76 inmates tested positive, according to data from the DOC.
Schiraldi urged the group to do all in their power to reduce the jail population to ease the outbreak.
“I implore you to ask the courts to similarly consider every available option to reduce the number of individuals in our jail,” Schiraldi wrote. “Whether that means seeking supervised release in more cases or identifying cases that can be resolved with modifications to sentence length or requesting compassionate release for individuals who are at higher risk due to underlying medical conditions, I leave to your professional judgment.”
The population at Rikers is at 5,628 as of today, DOC spokesman Patrick said. At one point last year, the population dropped to about 3,800 after a push by city and law enforcement officials to reduce the number of people incarcerated according to statistics provided by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
Schiraldi says only 45% of the inmate population has received one shot of the vaccine while only 38% are fully vaccinated.
Scores of inmates were released from Rikers in 2020 as a way to slow the spread of the virus and while infection rates are up officials said no inmates have been hospitalized because of Covid during the current outbreak.
The jail has already instituted other measures to try and slow the spread by replacing in-person visits with tele-visits along with suspending other programs and services, including religious services. DOC officials also instituted other movement protocols for anyone who contracted the virus or needed to quarantine.
DOC officials have tried to incentivize getting vaccinated by offering a $100 commissary credit as well as a grocery store gift card to someone in their community of their choosing, said Gallahue. The incentives have been in place since October, Gallahue added.
Messages from famous New Yorkers were even shown on tablets for inmates to see, all measures to convince as many as possible to get the shots, Gallahue said.
Despite all the measures, Schiraldi says it isn’t enough.
“I implore you to ask the courts to similarly consider every available option to reduce the number of individuals in our jail,” Schiraldi wrote.
So far, 87% of agency workers are vaccinated, which included staff at Rikers, courthouses and their headquarters, Gallahue said. About 85% of uniformed staff at Rikers have received at least one dose of the shot, Gallahue said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the issue at his daily briefing, highlighting the number of correction officers who have been given at least one dose of the vaccine while stressing the current Covid surge in the city isn’t as bad as the height in the spring of 2020.
Dr. Mitchell Katz, CEO of NYC Health and Hospitals, followed the mayor’s comments by stressing that no one at the jail has been hospitalized from the latest Covid surge.
“We have opened up another unit for inmates who are infected so we can keep them isolated,” said Katz. “Despite a major increase in infections, we have no hospitalizations. Gives me great pleasure to say we have no hospitalizations.”