At a city council hearing on Thursday, correctional medical officials sounded the alarm about an uptick in coronavirus infections at New York City jails including Rikers Island, noting that many more tests are coming back positive at these facilities relative to the city overall.
“Early on in 2020 when the pandemic had just hit, the rate of positivity among our patient population was higher than in the city,” Patsy Yang, Senior Vice President for Correctional Health Services, told the council. “We enjoyed a reversal at some point in 2020, but that regrettably has reversed again.”
In recent months, as the delta variant of COVID-19 has rocked the country, incarcerated people have also experienced increasing danger. COVID-19 data from the city’s Board of Correction falls into three bins based on when a person was exposed and if they’ve developed into a full-blown case while housed in a jail.
One of the categories–likely exposed but asymptomatic–serves as a proxy for how many residents are coming into close contact with known cases. The number of cases in this bin has jumped dramatically, rising from near zero in early August to more than 600 by September 1st.
“Carceral congregate settings are not a healthy place to be, period, much less in a time of a pandemic,” Yang told the council members. Correctional Health Services data shows that as of Monday medical authorities knew of at least 67 patients in the jails with active infections.
Yang thanked the mayor’s office for its efforts to create more medical clinics in the jails, but asserted that the best way to prevent transmission would be to shrink the jail population.
“Reducing the population not only protects the people who are vulnerable to serious disease but also gives relief to everybody who is in detention and who work with and care for them,” Yang added.
A medical staff member at Rikers, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press, told Gothamist/WNYC that the delta variant is causing a “very real crisis,” which has been exacerbated by a lack of available correctional staff.
“Covid positive patients are being identified and aren’t being moved,” the staff member said. “People, who are sitting in intake for days, are at additional risk because they are in a perfect set up for viral spread.”
Early in the pandemic last year, the city released hundreds of detainees, citing the dangers of COVID-19. But in the months that followed, the political appetite for decarceration slowed and the jail population steadily grew.
At the city council hearing on Wednesday, elected officials pressed the de Blasio administration to grant work release en masse for detainees serving misdemeanor sentences.
First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan pushed back, arguing that such initiatives would be fairly small in scale. Instead, he argued that decarceration efforts should be led by Gov. Kathy Hochul and the city’s District Attorneys.
Fuleihan called for Hochul to sign the Less Is More Act, which the mayor’s office claimed could release 400 people who are awaiting hearings for technical parole violations in city jail. He also called on district attorneys to seek conditions of supervised release for criminal defendants that are accused of non-violent crimes and awaiting trial.
Data compiled by the Vera Institute, a criminal justice research organization, shows almost 1,500 people being held in city jails are there for non-violent criminal charges and misdemeanors. That cohort accounts for over a quarter of the jail population.