A New York City corrections officer stationed on Rikers Island has tested positive for COVID-19, city officials announced Wednesday, just days after an investigator working at the jail died after testing positive for the virus.
A number of city leaders and public advocates are calling for immediate assistance to help the elderly incarcerated and to adequately the staff working inside the prisons. With more than 900 people over the age of 50 on Rikers Island, the majority having chronic medical conditions, officials say, many worry about the potential spread of the virus in close quarters.
“[Wednesday] morning, it was revealed that a corrections officer working on Rikers Island tested positive for COVID-19. One of the first NYC deaths due to coronavirus was an investigator who works on Rikers. It is only a matter of time before more staff and incarcerated people become sick,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Council Member Brad Lander said in a statement.
In New York, public defenders asked judges to release older and at-risk inmates from the city’s beleaguered federal jails, saying pretrial confinement “creates the ideal environment for the transmission of contagious disease.” The motions cite a provision of the Bail Reform Act allowing for the temporary release of pretrial inmates under “compelling” circumstances.
“Now, amid the rapid spread of COVID-19, the public health danger is even greater and more acute. I’m calling on the NYPD to suspend non-violent, so-called victimless quality of life arrests which could increase exposure rates among at-risk individuals, and calling on the Department of Corrections to release those who are most at risk from incarceration, where the close-quarters contact of our jails represents an immediate danger,” said Williams.
Attorneys for The Legal Aid Society reported receiving complaints from inmates with a lack of “basic sanitation measures” to prevent the spread of the virus at local jails.
“I truly believe the jails are ticking time bombs,” said David Patton, executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York. “They’re overcrowded and unsanitary in the best of times. They don’t provide appropriate medical care in the best of times, and these certainly are not the best of times.”
New York City's Board of Correction this week also called for the immediate release of all high-risk inmates after the investigator assigned to the jail system died over the weekend of the coronavirus. The 56-year-old man was said to have a pre-existing health condition and only limited contact with inmates.
The city's jail system has about 8,000 inmates, most at notorious Rikers Island.
However, accommodating the surge of requests poses its own challenge. Courts around the country are shutting down, with only a skeletal staff working. The chief federal judge in Brooklyn on Monday postponed indefinitely all criminal and civil jury trials, encouraging judges to conduct court business via telephone or video conferencing when possible, and to delay in-person proceedings.