Rikers Island Worker Blows Whistle On COVID-19 Risk In Infamous New York Jail

An interview with social worker Patricia Kim, who goes to work daily in a jail slammed by the coronavirus.
Elias Williams for HuffPost

As New York City begins to gradually reopen after its coronavirus lockdown, the threat of COVID-19 infection inside Rikers Island rages on. As of July 24, 288 people in custody of the NYC Department of Correction — or 7.3% of the population — were confirmed to be COVID-19 positive.

Because of a lack of widespread testing, that number is almost certainly an undercount. Even so, it indicates a rate of infection that is almost three times higher than the rate for New York City as a whole. The city has, for months, refused to publicly disclose the total number of people incarcerated at the Rikers jail complex who have contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Until recently, the city would only provide a current, rather than a cumulative, count — and the numbers released represent all individuals detained by the Correction Department, not just at Rikers, its biggest facility.

But the information that is available indicates an abysmal failure to protect the people in the department’s custody, the overwhelming majority of whom have not been convicted of a crime. Being imprisoned at Rikers during the pandemic, several incarcerated individuals have told HuffPost, is like waiting to die. At least three people in Correction Department custody have already died from the coronavirus — including two people who were in jail because of minor parole violations.

In May, Patricia Kim, a discharge planning social worker at Rikers Island, blew the whistle when she wrote an affidavit accusing city officials of “failing to implement effective, basic, common-sense preventative measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19 to its medically vulnerable detainees.” In the affidavit, the existence of which has not previously been reported, Kim described glaring discrepancies between the jail’s official COVID-19 policies and its on-the-ground reality. Social distancing and mask-wearing are inconsistent in the poorly ventilated facility, she wrote. Some incarcerated individuals sleep in beds only a few feet apart. Correctional officers and other staff move between units used to detain COVID-19 positive individuals and the rest of the jail, potentially spreading the virus throughout the facility.

There is little acknowledgment within Rikers of the risk of asymptomatic spread and even efforts to detect symptoms are poorly enforced, Kim wrote. In March, a staff member whose temperature was recorded at an impossibly low 85 degrees was approved for entry, even though the reading was clearly inaccurate. Kim said she was told in April that even if she tested positive for the coronavirus, she should continue coming to work as long as she did not have a fever and was not “coughing all over the place.” And in May, Kim said she noticed a sign as she passed through the metal detector that incorrectly advised, “If you are feeling well, no need to wear a mask.”

Lawyers with New York’s Legal Aid Society have secured the release of hundreds of people since the beginning of the pandemic but other clients have been denied release — including many who are elderly and have serious medical conditions. The Legal Aid Society has been incorporating Kim’s affidavit into bail applications to free their clients. HuffPost spoke with Kim in mid-July about her decision to come forward and what her job has been like since then. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What made you come forward? What compelled you to write the affidavit?

It’s the same as why I decided to work on [Rikers] Island as part of Correctional Health Services or getting into social work in general. It’s noticing and having the experience as an Asian person of color of the significant lack of resources and a really significant disparity in terms of the kind of care that one gets compared to white folks.

When you step into an environment where people acutely have been in need of care since their childhood, when you see that these interventions have not been made, and now we’re experiencing a pandemic ― it’s extraordinarily important that we continue to advocate for folks in their freedom. There is no reason why they should be waiting to catch a virus in a jail.

And were you afraid of retaliation?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Patricia Kim, a social worker and COVID-19 whistleblower at Rikers Island, poses for a portrait in the East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Patricia Kim, a social worker and COVID-19 whistleblower at Rikers Island, poses for a portrait in the East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Elias Williams for HuffPost

Could you walk me through what a typical workday is for you?

I am lucky enough to have a car and so I can drive onto the island and park in the parking lot there. Others would have to take public transportation to get to the island, which is a whole other concern in terms of COVID. But then after we park in the main lots, we have to go through the security building to where the route buses are. And these are all essentially school buses that will take you to the various facilities on the island. You take this bus with other people — that’s staff, officers.

These buses in the summer now, it’s very hot so the windows are all up and the AC is running so it’s not like you’re really getting ventilation. And I’ve noticed consistently having to get onto the bus after a group of staff and officers get off their tour where wearing masks was not 100%. And it’s troubling after work when the same bus that’s supposed to take me back to the parking lot area will stop at the EMTC [Eric M. Taylor Center], which is a facility that was reopened to provide care for folks that were transferred due to suspected COVID or COVID-positive status.

And when I get to the facility, we have to go through a pretty small front vestibule area ― where you have to take off your metal things, get your ID switched, and go through the mag [metal detector] ― and sometimes there’s a lot more people than anybody would feel comfortable with, where you cannot social distance in that area. It used to be that somebody, a correctional officer, would be taking your temperature but now I think they have a camera setup. It’s not clear if that’s a camera that is thermal imaging, but nobody is taking your temperature. It’s all self-reporting symptoms, but that does not address people who are asymptomatic.

Then there’s a long hallway as it gets to the control room where correctional officers can sign out a mask if they do not have one because people have to have a mask on when they’re going into the facility. But I’ve noticed people wear the mask on their chin or the mask is below their nose. Or, you know, no mask at all.

I am constantly reminding my guys, the guys on my units, to wear their masks. I have to remind them to get a clean mask. There’s a lack of understanding about how serious this pandemic is among a lot of the guys on my units because they’ve been incarcerated for longer than the pandemic has existed.

That, on top of all of the discharge planning work and just making sure that folks know that I’m present. Because one of the most important things to all the guys who are detained that I work with is information about their case, and it’s been very frustrating because courts have been closed and video courts are often canceled. And so throughout the day, it’s a matter of going on and off the units and making sure that there’s as much communication as possible for their legal stuff and then making sure that their concerns are taken care of.

And then leaving a couple hours late, usually for me because we were on a reduced schedule of three days a week and so we increased to four [earlier this month] because they’re slowly putting us back into a full-time schedule, even though the numbers are not necessarily showing that the pandemic has really gone anywhere. And then I go home. And then I come back and do it all over again.

New York police officials are blaming an uptick in violence in New York City on some people being released from Rikers in response to COVID. That claim is unsubstantiated, but do you worry that this kind of rhetoric will make it harder to depopulate the jail?

I absolutely believe that kind of rhetoric can make it difficult for people to leave. It’s really concerning because it means that folks who could otherwise go to [drug treatment] programs will be denied. We have a guy who, because somebody did not do well in the program and came back, I was told that this person would not get a program.

That kind of rhetoric comes from a place of really a lack of empathy, compassion and dehumanization ― because if it were their son, their brother, their father, I would think that there would be a different kind of dialogue there.

Do your patients talk to you much about COVID? Are any of them scared?

Yeah, I mean, especially folks who are older. Or folks with respiratory issues. But again, the kind of concern that would keep a mask on their face or social distancing at the forefront of their mind doesn’t really exist for a lot of these guys. And I think it also is impacted by the fact that they see officers and staff who are not following these guidelines too. They’re not exercising the kind of precautions that these patients need to see.

For me, the first couple of months, I had a welder’s mask on my face. I looked like something out of Mortal Kombat. I would laugh about it with my guys because it was something to connect to. I would point at my face and say, “This is how serious all of this is and if I don’t keep doing this, I cannot come in here to help you.” And they would put their mask on — but that’s because they didn’t have it on to begin with, right?

Kim holds the welder's mask she initially wore at work when the coronavirus pandemic hit New York.
Kim holds the welder's mask she initially wore at work when the coronavirus pandemic hit New York.
Elias Williams for HuffPost

You described in the affidavit a pretty jarring disconnect between official policies related to COVID and what you actually see happening at the jail. Is that because people don’t know the policies very well or because they’re just unrealistic to implement?

I would say unrealistic to implement, because you’re talking about people in a jail that these administrators are not inside of and do not work in the way that officers, staff and detained people are forced to.

You can say all that you want about what things should look like. But if you are not the one observing every day what things actually look like, then you can continue to live on whatever cloud is keeping you away from the island.

The people who are directors, these people worked remotely. And by the time they came, I’m sure they could get access to the kind of PPE [personal protective equipment] that would make them feel safe to walk through this facility. But that was never anything that we had. The masks that I had in the beginning were literally like my mom made them overnight. She’s a seamstress in a dry cleaner’s in Chicago. And it’s made out of an old pillowcase that she had sent to me so I could wear something in the facility because we really didn’t have anything.

Has anything changed since you wrote the affidavit?

The jail looks cleaner. But that’s because they’ve been painting and they’ve been mopping.

I have to wear a mask in the office because it’s impossible to social distance with my officemates who are only 3 feet away from me now that we’ve increased our schedules. Otherwise, everything else is the same. It’s still a lack of across-the-board compliance with wearing a mask or social distancing.

Have any of your patients gotten sick that you know of?

I know that patients have been transferred off because they became symptomatic, yes.

If either a patient you worked with or a colleague contracted COVID, are you confident that you would be notified?

No. No, it would only be from fellow staff. That lack of transparency is actually quite frightening.

What kind of access testing have you had?

When I requested to be tested a couple months ago, it took me almost two weeks to get it scheduled through the phone number that we were supposed to call through the governor’s office.

There was free antibody testing for a period if you were a health and hospital worker. I just tried to make an appointment a week ago for a COVID test at one of the urgent care or city MDs, and they actually told me that recently insurance policies have changed so I have to call my insurance to see whether or not they would cover it in the same way. I really don’t know if the hospitals are providing free COVID testing but I have not been told that it’s being provided on the island for us as employees.

So that first test a couple months ago was your only test?

Yes, and I had an antibody test after that. Those were the two tests I’ve had.

Was that first test precautionary or were you scared you had been exposed?

The first test was most definitely scared that I had been exposed.

There were patients that had been transferred off my unit and there were officers that had gone out. And the suspicion was that it was because of COVID.

How has all the risk that you’re exposed to at your job impacted your life outside of work?

I think in the beginning, it was pretty frightening because already I live with a lot of anxiety. Just the fear of bringing it home — there are children in my building and there were women that were pregnant in my building. And people in my building were also not observing the appropriate mask protocols and I would have to go to work.

And so it was just a huge increase in anxiety. It really motivated me to do everything that I could to help my folks who did not have a choice but to be detained. To try to get as many [housing] referrals out as possible, being in contact with the attorneys as much as possible. To ensure that there would be a way for them to be removed from this environment.

Even with a welder’s mask on my face, I remember a mental health employee smirking at me when she walked past me down the hall without a mask on. And that was really upsetting, because it’s like, how can you so flagrantly treat this like it’s not as serious as it really is?

This has been incredibly stressful. And then talking about the disparities and treatment of staff of color versus white staff — that has had an active impact that has me up at night. I can’t sleep very well, I’m not eating very well, I’ve definitely lost weight. And it’s causing strain just in my relationships at home. These are not healthy things. They’re all things that can impact the kind of work that I could do on the island for the folks that I serve.

Elias Williams for HuffPost

Do you ever think about quitting?

Oh completely. Since I started, I’ve been thinking about quitting. It’s really hard as somebody who has a documented history of working towards social justice to be in a space as oppressive as a jail is. That’s why a lot of people who are in social justice circles choose not to work in a jail because it’s very triggering. It’s extraordinarily stressful.

Absolutely I would love to quit. But then I think about the kind of care that people will get or the kind of ear that people will be given.

You’re not going to find a lot of people who work in this environment with the kind of care that is necessary that would want to speak to what is happening or what it is like to be here — especially during a pandemic.

What is the worst-case scenario if policies and enforcement around COVID don’t change at Rikers?

The worst-case scenario is this is just going to be a cyclic issue. That this will be history repeating itself so quickly and harming so many people.

It’s really a matter of people who are saying that these protocols are in place to come every day to work, do the four-days-a-week thing. You’re telling us to come in four days a week — then please, come in four days a week, go on to the units.

I don’t know how anyone could imagine that these environments are some kind of idyllic place where policies are magically being enforced, because they are not.

And if you’re thinking about how New York City addressed the COVID crisis, they shut everything down. And, by and large, people had to have their masks on and they were socially distancing. That is impossible in a jail environment, it is absolutely impossible.

I would challenge anybody who has written or claimed that these protocols are in place and are being enforced en masse: Please come and take a look. Don’t tell anybody you’re coming either. Like a food critic coming to the restaurant who wears a disguise — you go ahead and do that too. Because otherwise they will never fucking see.

The absurdity of it to me is like, I want to laugh but really it’s making me cry. It’s very upsetting. Because it is like gaslighting people. We are telling you what we see and then that’s not being addressed. They keep wanting to stamp out voices that are — at the risk of jobs or whatever retaliatory measure — talking about what is still happening months later, and people don’t want to pay attention to that.

Read Kim’s affidavit here:

Clarification: This article originally reported that New York City’s Correctional Health Services was refusing to disclose how many people incarcerated at Rikers Island had contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, a local law passed in June requires CHS to do so, and that information is available here, even though CHS told HuffPost it was unavailable. Changes have been made throughout to reflect this information.

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