Coronavirus Cases Are Spreading Rapidly on Rikers Island

Soap and space are still in short supply as at least 231 incarcerated people and 223 staff members test positive for COVID-19.

By JULIA CRAVEN – APRIL 02, 2020 – for SLATE

An aerial view of the Rikers Island prison in New York City.
An aerial view of the Rikers Island prison in New York City.Debra L. Rothenberg/WireImage

Between Wednesday morning and Thursday morning, 47 more incarcerated people and 54 more staff members at Rikers Island tested positive for the coronavirus, raising the number of COVID-19 cases in the jail complex to 231 incarcerated members and 223 staff.

For the people in Rikers, the virus appears to be spreading cataclysmically, in a population that’s particularly vulnerable to its effects. (One estimate puts the infection rate at four percent, compared with 0.51 percent in New York City overall.) An official at a public defender service described hearing from one person who has three chronic health conditions that have left them immunocompromised, who is currently housed in a dorm with 20 others—a figure that is, terrifyingly, on the low-end of the dorm population in the jail—that they were afraid of contracting the disease and dying in jail. Because they had priors, they’re being held on unaffordable bail after stealing Advil from a store.

Most of the people housed on Rikers are not there for violent crimes. Many are serving less than a year for minor offenses while others are locked up on technical parole violations, including missing curfew or failing to report an address change to a parole officer. A large chunk have been arrested for a crime that would have been processed as a misdemeanor had they not been parolees. And the folks who are in Rikers pretrial, who have not yet been convicted of a crime, are there because they cannot afford bond.

“If they get it, it’s likely that they’re not going to pull through,” the official with the public defender service, who provided Slate with accounts of the conditions faced by four people housed on Rikers, said about the coronavirus. (At the request of the official, all identifying information has been scrubbed to protect those still in jail.)

Many advocates and officialsincluding the jail’s chief physician—have bluntly said that the city is not doing enough to lessen a blow that was inevitably coming to a jail where people sleep less than three feet apart from one another, and dine and shower together on top of being shuffled from place to place in large groups. Respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 thrive in close, cramped corners. And SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, can remain on surfaces for long periods of time. So if someone touches a contaminated surface, such as a dirty food tray, and then touches their face, they can become infected.

Rikers is also, on a typical day, not a bastion of prioritizing cleanliness or human health. There have been reports of dirty common spaces, glove sharing, and lacking access to soap and other cleaning products.

More than half of the jail’s population is Black, a demographic group that appears to be more at risk of contracting the disease and experiencing adverse outcomes for a variety of reasons.

A second person who spoke to the public defender service has an ongoing history of respiratory distress. They have tried to request medical treatment on multiple occasions, but all requests have been ignored. A third said they need routine medical attention for several chronic health conditions and were recently injured, but have not been able to access medical treatment despite asking for it.

A fourth person reported that their dorm bathrooms had no soap for hand-washing. People housed in their unit were provided supplies for showering with the exception of personal soap. Everyone has been using the same bar of soap, and requests for more soap have been denied.

Beyond those four reports shared with Slate, the official has seen at least 150 others expressing similar fears and concerns.

“These stories are unfortunately a dime a dozen,” the official said.

In response to a question about the number of cases in Rikers, the city Department of Correction sent Slate a copy of its COVID-19 policies for staff and incarcerated people, which specifically advised staff to wash their hands but included no reference to hand-washing in the section for people in custody. The department did not respond to a request for comment about the specific complaints before publication. 

Update, April 3, 2020, at 4:18 p.m.: In response to the report about the lack of soap, a Department of Correction spokesperson wrote:

Every detainee has access to their own bar of soap and we have left soap in every bathroom at every sink. Most inmates procure soap from the commissary, but Corcraft bar soap is available for every detainee if they need to replenish their supplies. The availability of soap in the housing area, the presence of soap at every sink, and a listing of any inmate complaint are audited by area captains and documented three times during their 8 hour tours.

The spokesperson added that the department has “conducted extensive outreach” about hand-washing and that it “is committed to robust sanitation protocols throughout its facilities and transportation vehicles, and has ramped up existing cleaning policies to combat the potential spread of the coronavirus.”

The spokesperson referred questions about access to medical treatment to the division of Correctional Health Services, which is independently responsible for providing health care to people in custody.

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