New York City Inmates Suffer From Coronavirus Outbreak
“A coronavirus outbreak in our overcrowded, poorly maintained jails and prison facilities would be devastating, swift, and deadly.”
In New York City, 21 inmates and 17 employees at Rikers Island and surrounding facilities have tested positive for coronavirus as of this weekend. The likely number of those infected is likely much higher due to a lack of testing, and another 58 inmates are quarantined and being monitored.
New York is now one of the epicenters of the global coronavirus pandemic with 16,887 confirmed cases as of March 22, which accounts for 5% of coronavirus cases worldwide.
New York City has been particularly hard hit and its jail system as a potential outbreak center for the deadly virus has been a cause for great concern.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday that 23 vulnerable inmates were being released from the New York City jails system, but there is mounting pressure on the US prison system to do more to prevent outbreaks.
Board of Correction interim chairwoman Jacqueline Sherman has been firm in her critique of New York and wrote a letter to criminal justice leaders this weekend. She wrote, “Fewer people in the jails will save lives and minimize transmission among people in custody as well as staff. Failure to drastically reduce the jail population threatens to overwhelm the City jails’ healthcare system as well [as] its basic operations.”
Slow to React
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been lauded for his public relations in the face of the coronavirus, CNN has had several articles about Cuomo dripping in praise (note: the Governor’s brother Chris hosts his own show on CNN).
However, activists and professionals have strongly criticized Governor Cuomo and New York’s lackadaisical reaction to the impending health crisis.
Even New York state politicians called on Cuomo to hold a task force to look into releasing prisoners to prevent the spread of coronavirus. State Senator Luis Sepúlveda and Assemblyman David Weprin addressed a letter to Cuomo, and Weprin added on Twitter, “correctional facilities cannot become an incubator for COVID – 19 and I sincerely hope we will do all we can to ensure that there are strategies in place to reduce the spread in jails and prisons.”
Iran temporarily released 85,000 prisoners in the midst of their coronavirus outbreak, and many are wondering why the United States and New York are not doing the same.
The United States has the biggest prison population in the world at 2.3 million inmates, and prisons are vulnerable to the spread of viruses.
Executive Director at Brooklyn Defender Services, Lisa Schreibersdorf said in a statement, “a coronavirus outbreak in our overcrowded, poorly maintained jails and prison facilities would be devastating, swift, and deadly. It is incumbent on our leaders to do everything they can to protect all of their constituents, including incarcerated people.”
Yet, Cuomo has had his eyes on other targets in recent days. Cuomo has pushed to ban cash bail entirely in the new state budget, but he also said he wants to pass reforms that would allow the state to hold defendants of certain crimes pre-trial.
In the face of an unprecedented public health crisis, the rhetoric has concerned many in criminal justice reform and public health.
Nick Milanowski, civil rights campaign director for VOCAL-NY, told the AP, “New York is the only state in the country that is contemplating changing their bail laws during the pandemic to increase incarceration.”
While New York dominates headlines in the US for its stark rise in confirmed cases, the story of one inmate’s coronavirus infection could increase attention to the story of coronavirus’ spread in jails.
Disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein contracted the virus while in custody after being sentenced to 23 years in jail for rape and sexual assault.
Before heading to jail, Weinstein was at the Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan to receive treatment for heart problems.
Famous celebrities, athletes and politicians across the globe have tested positive for the virus at a seemingly higher rate than the general population, likely due to the difficulty in getting tested for the average person.
New York City health officials sent out an alert to healthcare providers Friday to only test patients who need hospitalization, citing a shortage of testing.
The lack of testing in the United States conflicts with the World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s advice to “test, test, test.”