Prisoners At Rikers Say It's Like A 'Death Sentence' As Coronavirus Spreads

The COVID-19 infection rate in NYC jails is 87 times higher than the overall U.S. rate, and prisoners have no way to protect themselves.
People incarcerated at Rikers Island are worried they will die in jail from COVID-19.
People incarcerated at Rikers Island are worried they will die in jail from COVID-19.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Junior Wilson is worried the coronavirus could kill him. The 57-year-old relies on a pacemaker to keep his heartbeat regular and could have trouble breathing if he catches the virus. But unlike many Americans, he can’t isolate himself or disinfect his hands with sanitizer. For the past seven months, he’s been held on Rikers Island for a parole violation, in an infirmary unit filled with people who have health issues.

Wilson says he sleeps in a bed a few feet away from men who are constantly sneezing and coughing and that new people are arriving on his floor every day. Nobody is removed unless they test positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, giving the virus plenty of time to spread before the results come in, according to Wilson.

On Wednesday, Wilson developed a cough, sore muscles and diarrhea ― symptoms that have not gone away. He and the roughly 28 others in his section threatened to go on a hunger strike if they didn’t get masks.

“They give us nothing to protect us,” he said of the staff at Rikers. “I just feel like I’m sitting on death row, waiting to die.”

Junior Wilson at his home in 2019.
Junior Wilson at his home in 2019.
Junior Wilson

A jail on Rikers Island is one of the most dangerous places to be as the coronavirus outbreak spreads. The rate of infection in New York City’s jails is seven times higher than in the rest of the city, and 87 times higher than in the U.S. overall, according to data analysis by the Legal Aid Society.

“If the daily COVID-19 infection rate remains this high, the virus will engulf the entire local jail population in a matter of weeks,” the group said in a statement.

New York City’s Department of Corrections won’t say how many confirmed COVID-19 cases there are at Rikers Island — but as of Friday, 103 incarcerated people and 80 staffers in the city’s jails had tested positive for the disease. A New York City Department of Correction investigator who had tested positive for the coronavirus died last week.

Jails are high-risk environments for a contagious disease. It is impossible for most prisoners to follow recommended guidelines on social distancing, hand-washing, and disinfecting surfaces. Incarcerated people usually sleep, eat, shower, exercise and use the phone within a few feet of other people. Medical care in jail, even under regular circumstances, is often poor.

Conditions at Rikers Island, the second-largest jail in the country, are notoriously bad. Several prisoners told HuffPost they are forced to sleep within a few feet of people who show symptoms like coughing and fevers, and said they can’t get masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, or cleaning supplies to protect themselves. Some don’t even have ready access to running water or soap.

It can take up to two weeks to get medical attention, and people with COVID-19 symptoms are often not being tested or having their temperatures checked, according to a recent report from Brooklyn Defender Services. In fact, corrections officers pepper-sprayed eight prisoners earlier this month after they tried to go to a jail clinic to get their temperatures checked.

NYC officials voted last year to close Rikers — which has become infamous for prisoner abuse and neglect — and replace it with smaller, more humane facilities by 2026. But those plans have been interrupted as Department of Correction officials scramble for space in the overcrowded jail to isolate sick prisoners. Earlier this week, the department reopened the Eric M. Taylor Center, a building in Rikers that had been shut down in March, to use as an overflow location for incarcerated people showing signs of COVID-19 infection.

Legal Aid Society has filed multiple lawsuits arguing for the release of prisoners who are elderly, have health complications, are being held in pretrial detention, and who are being held for low-level violations. The group secured some victories, but thousands of people are still stuck at Rikers, waiting for the highly contagious virus to hit them next.

“We keep talking about New York City being the epicenter of all of this in the U.S., but the truth is the epicenter is our jails,” said Kelsey De Avila, the project director of jail services at Brooklyn Defender Services. “I think death is inevitable. These are deaths that could have been prevented.”

Jails are high-risk environments during a contagious disease outbreak because it is impossible for most prisoners to follow guidelines on social distancing, hand- washing, and disinfecting surfaces.
Jails are high-risk environments during a contagious disease outbreak because it is impossible for most prisoners to follow guidelines on social distancing, hand- washing, and disinfecting surfaces.
Debra L. Rothenberg via Getty Images

Wilson, the man with a pacemaker, is being held at the North Infirmary Command (NIC), a unit on Rikers with 150 beds for people who need medical care and another 260 beds in special units for people who need protective custody. NIC detains the most medically vulnerable people, including those who are over 50 with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma. People in Wilson’s unit sleep a few feet apart, eat in groups, and share a bathroom without about 30 people, he said.

Now the NIC also holds people who have coronavirus symptoms. Most people in Wilson’s unit have been tested for COVID-19, but new people with symptoms show up every day.

“You don’t know who is positive or negative,” Wilson said, adding that he woke up on Wednesday to find four new people in his dorm. Prisoners with symptoms are only transferred out of the NIC and put into quarantine after they test positive for the virus — something that has been happening daily, Wilson said.

That means that the prisoners at Rikers who are the most at risk of getting very sick from a coronavirus infection now have an even greater chance of getting the disease.

COVID-19 is “going to hit Rikers like a freight train,” Wilson said. “There’s no if, ands or buts about that.”

New York City’s Department of Corrections wrote in an email that it “is ensuring there is an empty bed in between people in custody to increase space while sleeping” but “where this is not practicable, DOC is utilizing head-to-toe sleeping arrangements for people in custody in dorm areas.”

William Jones, a 58-year-old detained in NIC, said people in his unit are “walking around sneezing and throwing up.” Jones has a heart condition, asthma, and Type 2 diabetes.

“We have been sacrificed by the state,” he said. “Eventually, we are going to catch the virus and die.”

Marvin Watson, another man held in NIC, said he had been walking in the yard with a guy who tested positive for the coronavirus and was quarantined two days ago. “It’s really kind of mind-wrecking stuff,” said the 53-year-old with diabetes, “to not know if you’re going to catch it.”

“Without access to gloves or masks, prisoners have started wrapping their faces in towels, sheets and sweaters in an effort to protect themselves, one inmate said.”

Even as coronavirus spreads throughout Rikers Island, the Department of Correction continues to bring additional prisoners into the jail complex. On Monday, approximately two dozen men were transferred from the Manhattan Detention Complex to Rikers, Sean Hernandez, one of the men in the group, told HuffPost. When the men arrived at Rikers, it was clear their cells hadn’t been cleaned since the previous group of men had been moved. They were “filthy and there was garbage everywhere,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez, 33, is currently working through an appeal in his case. But his next court date has been postponed as a result of COVID-19 and he doesn’t know when he’ll have the chance to appear in court. He wasn’t aware of any confirmed COVID-19 cases at the Manhattan jail where he was previously held and he doesn’t understand why he was moved into a facility battling an outbreak. “I, personally, have asthma. This could be a death sentence for me,” he said.

Hernandez requested anonymity in a previous HuffPost story but has since agreed to be named in hopes of raising awareness about the unfolding crisis at Rikers. Without access to gloves or masks, prisoners have started wrapping their faces in towels, sheets and sweaters in an effort to protect themselves, Hernandez said. He has repeatedly asked for gloves to clean the showers, a job he is required to complete three times a day, he said.

”We’re being treated like second-class citizens, like animals,” Hernandez said. “I just want people to know, in case something happens to me. I could drop dead.”

The corrections department claimed in an email that masks are provided to incarcerated people who are symptomatic and to those who live in a housing area that is exposed.

“To me, we were safer in MDC,” Damani Thomas, another prisoner who was recently transferred to Rikers, said in an interview. “We had soap, sinks, the showers worked, everything was clean.” At Rikers, Thomas said, the sink in his cell doesn’t work.

Hernandez and Thomas said it is impossible to put any distance between themselves and other inmates. They are served food by another prisoner who does not have access to gloves or a mask. They eat at crowded tables. They suspect the house next to theirs, about 15 feet away, includes people who are sick. They have both seen people in hazmat suits approach the neighboring house.

“We’re just in this house, waiting to die,” Thomas said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city will release nearly 400 people from jail this week as part of the effort to minimize the spread of the virus. That move is too late, Di Avila from Brooklyn Defender Services said. To save lives and prevent the spread, the city needed to have let out thousands of people by now.

“We’re going to see deaths, and all of these could have been prevented weeks ago,” she said. “This all could have been prevented.”

This story has been updated with comment from the New York City Department of Corrections.

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