Coronavirus: New York prison infections surging as mayor moves to release more inmates

Most recent figures show prisons’ infection rate is many times that of New York City

Andrew Naughtie
Thursday 26 March 2020 13:49 GMT
How can New York jails stop coronavirus?

New York City’s prison system is facing a catastrophic surge in cases of Covid-19, with some jails facing an infection rate more than 80 times that of the US as a whole.

The Legal Aid Society, which has long campaigned for the rights of prisoners in the New York City area, has released figures indicating that coronavirus is spreading rapidly among the prison population.

The society counts some 75 cases, most in the city’s main detention facility, Rikers Island. According to the society’s figures, Rikers has seven times the infection rate of New York City, which is already the worst-hit metropolitan area in the US by far.

Writing on Twitter as the latest data emerged, the society’s Molly Griffin called the numbers “gut-wrenchingly awful”.

“Updated numbers coming out soon from @LegalAidNYC. I can’t quite put into words how terrifying it is to see the numbers skyrocket like this, and I’m writing from my cozy Brooklyn apartment. Must be so much scarier to watch them skyrocket from inside Rikers,” she wrote.

Speaking to the New York Daily News, Ms Griffin’s colleague Tina Luongo bluntly laid out what needs to happen next: “Based on this analysis, NYC jails have become the epicentre of Covid-19. It is imperative that Albany, City Hall, our local District Attorneys and the NYPD take swift and bold action to mitigate the spread of this deadly virus.”

The Legal Aid Society has filed multiple lawsuits seeking the release of detained clients whose incarceration it says put them at risk of infection. Most recently, it has sued the city on behalf of several teenagers being held as juvenile delinquents.

Pressure on New York’s authorities to release prisoners before the epidemic took hold was already mounting weeks before the latest figures came out. The chief physician at Rikers Island has called on judges and prosecutors to release prisoners where they can, pointing out: we cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom”.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has already released dozens of inmates from the city’s prisons, and has now promised to release 300 more nonviolent inmates who are serving less than a year’s sentence. Inmates charged with sexual assault or domestic violence will not be released.

His move echoes a similar initiative in Los Angeles county, where the Sheriff’s Department has released more than 600 prisoners and ordered police officers to avoid arresting people wherever possible.

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