NEW YORK — In April, more than half of Rikers Island was locked down for quarantine for exposure to the coronavirus.
During the height of the pandemic in the spring, more than 1,400 correction officers caught the virus. Three inmates died.
Now, a member of the city’s Board of Correction fears the same thing is happening again — that COVID-19 is returning to Rikers Island.
Board of Correction Member Dr. Robert Cohen told NY1 new data shows the number of inmates under quarantine in city jails for exposure to COVID-19 are on the rise.
According to the city’s jail oversight board, 46 inmates were in housing units exposed to COVID-19 on November 7. By November 13, that number almost tripled to 132. During the same time period, there were seven new confirmed COVID-19 cases among Department of Correction staff.
Cohen told NY1 he recently visited one jail on Rikers Island and said it "was severely overcrowded.”
"49 men in a 50-bed dorm with half of the beds almost touching each other, none more than three or four feet apart,” Cohen said. "The Department of Correction has thousands of empty beds. There is no reason to overcrowd incarcerated people into dormitories. This is dangerous for them, it's dangerous for the staff, and will be dangerous for all of us.”
He pointed to numbers from the board that echo that fact. As of November 13, 45% of jail dormitories on Rikers were over 75% capacity.
Cohen said given the new rise in COVID-19, the city should work to test all Department of Correction staff on a weekly basis.
In a statement, Department of Correction Press Secretary Jason Kersten said, “The health and safety of those who work and live in our facilities is our primary concern. We want the safest environment for everyone and our housing strategy and mitigation efforts, which we develop in close collaboration with Correctional Health Services, have proven successful over the past eight months.”
The head of correction officers’ union also sent us this statement:
“Over the course of the past several months, we have publicly called for the City of New York to follow the Center for Disease Control’s social distancing guidelines in our jails. For example, as it relates to social distancing for our inmate population, the CDC asserts, ‘Implement social distancing strategies to increase the physical space between incarcerated/detained persons (ideally 6 feet between all individuals, regardless of symptoms), and to minimize mixing of individuals from different housing units.’ To be clear that is not happening at any of our facilities, where in fact, the housing areas are near capacity at all but two of our jails. The city’s proposed jail consolidation plan calls for the closure of the Manhattan Detention Center and the closure of the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, which would transfer over 700 inmates and over 1,600 Correction Officers from those facilities to other facilities which are already operating near capacity. The CDC, the State of New York, and the City of New York have all called for lowering the number of people who can occupy restaurants, schools, gyms etc but the Department of Correction on the other hand is actually increasing the population density of our jails with this reckless and negligent jail consolidation plan, jeopardizing the lives of everyone in our jails.”
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