[Pnews] If Coronavirus Deaths Start Piling Up in Rikers Island Jails, We’ll Know Who To Blame

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Mar 23 12:44:06 EDT 2020


  If Coronavirus Deaths Start Piling Up in Rikers Island Jails, We’ll
  Know Who To Blame

Nick Pinto - March 23, 2020

_On Wednesday, the_ first positive coronavirus test came in from a 
person in New York City’s custody 
<https://theintercept.com/2020/03/18/coronavirus-rikers-island-jail/> at 
its Rikers Island jail complex, following weeks of warnings from doctors 
and advocates about the devastation the disease could wreak in the 
filthy, crumbling jails. The ensuing days would be marked by a stark 
dichotomy: the thing that did not happen, and the thing that did. What 
did not happen was any kind of urgent official response; the people with 
the power to significantly reduce the number of sick and elderly people 
packed into unhygienic jail dorms didn’t do it. What did happen was 
equally predictable: The virus began infecting jailed people at a 
furious rate. What had been one case on Thursday had by Sunday evening 
to at least 29.

We learned of the rising infections not because the city’s Department of 
Correction announced them; the agency is still notoriously opaque and 
allergic to public communication, despite the urging of watchdogs and 
public health officials to do better in light of the health crisis. The 
scale of the disease’s spread became clear Saturday only because the 
Board of Corrections, a civilian oversight body, published the number of 
cases in aletter 
it sent Saturday reiterating the urgent need to drastically reduce the 
number of people trapped in the city’s jails, where fundamental 
sanitation remains lacking and social distancing impossible. Only a day 
later did the Department of Correction come forward with an updated number.

    “These are the people who have the power and the responsibility to
    make sure that what happens in the next few weeks is not a
    large-scale humanitarian crisis or widespread devastation and death.”

As the dire predictions of widespread transmission on Rikers lurch 
inexorably towards realization, the likelihood that many people could 
die because they were not released becomes clearer. If that comes to 
pass, the list of people directly responsible for those deaths — the 
people who knew the jails of Rikers Island were a death trap, who had 
the power to let people out, and who chose not to — will be very short.

That list includes New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo; New York City Mayor Bill 
de Blasio; the five district attorneys of New York City; and Chief Judge 
for the State of New York Janet DiFiore.

“All of the evidence that people need to take bold and decisive action 
has been right in front of us,” Justine Olderman, director of the Bronx 
Defenders, a public defense organization, told The Intercept. “These are 
the people who have the power and the responsibility to make sure that 
what happens in the next few weeks is not a large-scale humanitarian 
crisis or widespread devastation and death.”

_Let’s begin with_ Cuomo. According to the Board of Corrections, 666 
people are being held in New York City jails on technical parole 
violations, such as missing a curfew, failing a drug test, or failing to 
notify their parole officer of a change of address. Cuomo could tell his 
Parole Board that these issues are better taken up after the mortal 
danger of confinement in the septic cages of Rikers Island during a 
plague has passed. Cuomo hasn’t done it.

Another 811 people are in city jails because they were arrested while on 
parole. Their release would depend on the agreement of Cuomo’s Parole 
Board, the district attorney on the case, and the judge responsible 
that, even for people who have been convicted of crimes in the past, 
arrest without trial should not warrant a sentence to death by disease 
contracted in a crowded jail dorm.

City jails house 551 people convicted of minor crimes that carry 
sentences of a year or less. Medical professionals and public defenders 
have spent weeks calling for de Blasio to release these people using his 
executive power. In response, the mayor has insisted on moving very 
slowly, evaluating each case individually with the New York Police 
Department. Why the police, of all agencies, should be involved in 
determining who receives a medical release from jail remains 
unexplained. But de Blasio and the cops are determining who among these 
people convicted of minor crimes is worthy of removal from conditions 
where they cannot protect themselves from fatal disease.

As coronavirus speeds through Rikers, de Blasio is inching his way 
forward. Late last week, he announced that, after thorough review, he 
had identified all of 40 people who might be considered for release, 
should prosecutors approve. At a press conference Sunday, he added that 
he would soon begin reviewing a new tranche of 200 candidates for 
release. “We’re all trying to make sense of a very challenging situation 
in an appropriate way,” he said. “We are looking at each individual 
case. Some of the portrayals of the situation have left out some of the 

It’s actually not that complicated, Rory Lancman, a New York City 
council member, said in an interview: State law 
explicitly gives the mayor’s correction commissioner power to relocate 
people serving short sentences in city jails for a “compelling reason 
consistent with the public interest.”

The problem isn’t the complexity of the situation, Lancman said, it’s de 
Blasio: “You combine the mayor’s longstanding extreme reluctance to 
meaningfully reform the criminal justice system with his extreme 
reluctance to act decisively in the Covid-19 crisis generally,” Lancman 
told The Intercept, “and you end up with hundreds of people sitting on 
Rikers Island effectively creating a time bomb.”

_The largest category_ of people in city jails are those awaiting trial 
— people who have not been charged but not convicted. In the ordinary 
course of events, getting someone in this position out of jail requires 
an application made in court before a judge.

Janet DiFiore, the chief judge in charge of New York state courts, has 
mothballed most court operations in recognition of the coronavirus’s 
public health risk. On the public health risks of crowded dormitory 
detention without so much as a bar of soap, however, she has been mum. 
Her office has issued no directive or guidance to judges to encourage 
them to facilitate the speedy processing of these applications.

Judges have the ultimate power to decide on defendants’ applications to 
be allowed to weather coronavirus at home — allowing them to properly 
wash themselves and maintain social-distancing and then return to court 
when their trials proceed after courts reopen. But whether or not 
prosecutors support the applications also matters a great deal to their 

Here, too, the degree of disregard is striking. The Brooklyn District 
Attorney Eric Gonzales has signaled his willingness to cooperate with 
some of these applications. So has the Bronx District Attorney Darcel 
Clark. Both are relying on public defenders to bring them cases one by 
one, the equivalent of evacuating the Titanic with a handful of one-man 
lifeboats. Still, it’s more than district attorneys in Manhattan, 
Queens, and Staten Island are doing.

It remains possible that the blooming epidemic on Rikers Island will not 
turn into a catastrophe of mass fatalities. Medical teams are working 
hard in city jails and, with any luck, they will be able to save lives. 
If people do die on Rikers, however, it won’t be because the public 
officials with the power to save them were not warned.

“It’s a handful of people: the mayor, the governor, judges, the city 
DAs,” said Olderman, of the Bronx Defenders. “They could do it if they 
wanted to. And they’re making a choice. The death of incarcerated people 
that is sure to follow is going to be on their hands.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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