Like most New Yorkers who lived through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am still reeling from the trauma and chaos we experienced this spring. But until I set foot on Rikers Island last week, I had an incomplete understanding of what the true horrors of COVID-19 were for some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers.
At the height of the pandemic, the Rikers saw an infection rate seven times higher than the rest of the city. The Corrections Department (DOC) was forced to reopen a closed facility on the island to quarantine patients suspected of covid when isolation wards and existing clinics ran out of capacity. Many incarcerated New Yorkers, correctional staff and health workers have died as limited use of PPE and testing allowed the virus to spread like wildfire in closed, poorly ventilated cell blocks.
Today, with low infection rates across town, many consider the risk to those of Rikers to be over, but if a second wave arrives this winter, as many scientists predict, the Rikers will again be straight in the crosshairs of the disease. It is clear to me from the whistleblower stories and the conditions I just saw at the prison that there are still many vulnerabilities – from inconsistent use of PPE and social distancing by staff, to sleep situations which still place some people incarcerated in a few. feet apart.
While DOC commits to adopting solutions in a city council hearing I’m holding on this issue, there is little we can do to protect the people staying at this decrepit facility.
Blasio’s administration has already acknowledged that in April it began to dramatically increase the early release of those incarcerated. The mayor’s office and DOC worked swiftly to identify those for early release, including older adults, those with underlying health conditions, those held for technical release violations conditional and those serving sentences of less than one year in town. In just a matter of weeks, we went from 5,557 people in the Correctional Department to just 3,800 – a population drop that was previously expected to take years (the census has since climbed back to just over 4,100). And analyzes show that these early releases experienced fewer repeat arrests than one would expect for normal released populations before the covid.
Even with the rapid reduction, prisons like the Rikers have always strived to find space for social distancing. In recent months, the city’s correctional health services have recommended the release of more than 1,500 additional people, including hundreds who meet the same requirements as those scheduled for early release in April. Unfortunately, many of these recommendations continue to be rejected by the DOC, which refuses to publish the total number of approved versions.
Continuing to release those held by DOC, while implementing political solutions to globally reduce arrests, will save lives not only inside, but in New York as a whole. Justice and public health advocates have identified ‘prison churn’, the phenomenon whereby people are cycled into prisons for short periods of time, where they are at risk of exposure to covid, and then handed over. free in their communities.
But one day COVID-19 will end, and with Rikers’ plan to close and open four small prisons in a borough delayed until 2027 by the city’s reduced budget, we should take this opportunity to think about how we can safely reduce the city. current prison population beyond the pandemic, while questioning the negative impact of the physical structure of prisons on public health and what the new prisons will look like in terms of safety and scope.
It will not happen overnight, but we can take action while prioritizing public health and safety. First, as a city and state, we must take all possible measures to reduce the number of arrests made, fire officers with a history of police misconduct, and work to dismantle the system that allows the “blue wall of silence”. The state can also pass laws to remove unnecessary criminal laws (such as the ban on “walking while trans”) and reinstate parts of historic bail reforms that were sadly rescinded as a result. pressure from the police unions. And we can continue to redistribute funding from our policing services to community-based programs that have been shown to be more effective in reducing recidivism.
At the same time, the mayor’s office could work with the DOC to compile an annual report on the city’s prison population and corresponding recommendations on how to reduce this overall population as a function of time beyond the planned census for. post-Rikers prisons in the districts. Since demolition work on the proposed prison sites has not yet started, these reports could influence the size of the local prisons currently offered each year before construction begins.
COVID-19 has completely changed the way we view our society and work to address its flaws, including the systemic and racist inequalities that plague communities of color. There is no reason we shouldn’t take this opportunity to make sure that we constantly review our criminal justice reform efforts, the Rikers of today and tomorrow.
City Council member Carlina Rivera represents Manhattan District 2 and chairs the council’s hospital committee. On Twitter @CarlinaRivera.