At-Risk Group Sues To Get The Release From Rikers They Were Promised

New York's Andrew Cuomo promised to release people imprisoned on technical parole violations — but over 500 remain at the heavily infected jail complex.
Rikers Island is one of the most dangerous places to be during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rikers Island is one of the most dangerous places to be during the coronavirus pandemic.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised last week to release people who are imprisoned “because they violated parole for nonserious reasons” as part of the state’s efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. But at least 547 remain imprisoned at Rikers Island for technical parole violations — noncriminal matters like missing a curfew or failing to notify a parole officer of an address change — according to a lawsuit filed by The Legal Aid Society on Friday.

At least 100 of these people are at a high risk of severe illness or death if infected with the virus, Legal Aid attorney Corey Stoughton wrote in the complaint petitioning for their release, which she shared with HuffPost before filing. Continuing to imprison people on parole warrants who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 “constitutes deliberate indifference to the risk of serious medical harm in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and state constitutional right to due process,” Stoughton continued.

As of Friday, there were at least 239 incarcerated people and 273 staff members in New York City’s jails with confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Rikers Island is one of the most dangerous places to be during the current public health crisis. The rate of COVID-19 infection in NYC jails is about nine times higher than the city’s rate, according to Legal Aid’s data analysis.

The city’s corrections department has continued bringing new prisoners into Rikers, even after it became clear that the jail complex was battling an outbreak. Prisoners are physically handled by corrections officers who enter and leave the facility daily and who could be asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

“When staff and officers and others are coming in and out, we just cannot make a commitment that we can protect [incarcerated people],” Rachel Bedard, a doctor who provides medical care for elderly and sick prisoners at Rikers, told The New Yorker. “It’s not a fortress.”

Prisoners live, eat and sleep in close proximity to others. They don’t have access to necessary cleaning supplies, gloves or masks. Access to soap is limited and some people at Rikers have reported not even having running water in their cells. People who show symptoms of COVID-19 are forced to live close to those who do not.

“They give us nothing to protect us,” Junior Wilson, a 57-year-old man imprisoned at Rikers who relies on a pacemaker to keep his heartbeat regular, previously told HuffPost. “I just feel like I’m sitting on death row, waiting to die.”

Every petitioner in Legal Aid’s lawsuit is incarcerated “solely on a parole warrant based on technical violations of the conditions of release,” Stoughton wrote. None of the petitioners have pending criminal charges. One petitioner is a 51-year-old charged with not reporting to their parole office and changing their address. They had informed their parole officer that it was hard to make it to the office because they didn’t have money for the subway, according to the complaint.

The prisoners who are suing for release have a range of health complications, including asthma, respiratory issues, heart problems, diabetes, pancreatitis, hypertension, high blood pressure, a history of colon cancer, seizures and hepatitis C.

The only way to protect these prisoners, according to correctional public health experts, is to release them. More than two weeks ago, the Board of Correction of the city of New York, the independent agency that conducts oversight of the city’s jails, urged the city to “immediately remove from jail all people at higher risk from COVID-19 infection” and to “drastically reduce the number of people in jail right now.” The Board of Correction issued a second letter days later calling on judges and prosecutors to release people who are over 50 years old and who have health problems.

Even “best efforts” from people who run the jails and provide health services to prisoners “will not be enough to prevent viral transmission in the jails,” the board warned.

Last week, Legal Aid secured the release of more than 100 people imprisoned on Rikers Island for technical parole violations by filing a similar lawsuit. “While the government should have released these people without need for judicial intervention, we applaud the Court for this ruling, which will help to save our vulnerable clients from contracting a virus that has already killed thousands worldwide,” Stoughton said at the time.

Read the complaint here: 

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