I worked at Rikers Island. Believe me when I say these inmates shouldn't be released into New York City

The mayor is now releasing former inmates who will act as tiny bombs carrying the potentially deadly coronavirus. When these bombs go off, that's when the nightmare will really begin

Ralph Ortiz
New Jersey
Friday 27 March 2020 18:59 GMT
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The mayor has been releasing prisoners as infection rates within the correctional facility rise
The mayor has been releasing prisoners as infection rates within the correctional facility rise (SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES)

This week, New York’s Mayor de Blasio tweeted that he will release at least 200 inmates in the coming days. That's not counting the 63 inmates he released last week. It has been reported that as many as 38 people who either are working or staying on Rikers Island have tested positive for the coronavirus. These numbers are going to go much higher.

As a former correction officer at Rikers Island, I can tell you that the island is one of the filthiest places you will ever see. The cleaning crew at these facilities are the inmates themselves and 75 cents an hour is no incentive for them to do the job right.

Before starting work at Rikers, I was an Emergency Medical Technician, and I thought I had been exposed to everything. I believed that surely I’d built up a strong immunity to most bacteria. I was wrong. I began working as a correction officer in August and by December, I got really sick. I had to use my annual days off.

In other words, I wasn’t surprised to hear that coronavirus had made it onto Rikers Island.

I worked at Otis Bantum Correctional Center in a dorm setting where the maximum number of inmates we could house was 60. These are 60 men all living together in a tight space who are not practicing social distancing. There is nothing at Rikers Island that will help these inmates stay healthy. The inmates walk together to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. They congregate in one large space when they have visitors and hang out together in the TV room. The single bar of soap they get won't be enough to sustain the need of constantly washing your hands. There are no sanitizers in the housing areas nor in the hallways.

Even the locker rooms for the officers were disgusting. Many times the soap dispensers did not have soap and it was not uncommon for the officers to use the same soap the inmates were given.

I won’t lie and say the island was never cleaned. It was cleaned, just not professionally. The times I did see the inmates clean, I never saw them clean the bars on the gates, the gates themselves, the metal detectors, the windows, the toilets. An unsuspecting inmate or officer would then open the gate or touch something which has been tainted and then he or she would get sick. After I became ill, I bought a lot of hand sanitizer to make sure it never happened again. I would wipe the bars, keys, anything I may come in contact with.

I believe it is a good idea to close Rikers Island. I believe that if you are a non-violent offender that you should not be held there until your case is settled. However, it’s abundantly clear that New York City cannot provide the basic services to get Rikers Island clean. It has not been able to do it yet, and it certainly won’t be able to do it in the middle of a pandemic, when the city is the epicenter.

The mayor is now releasing into the city former inmates who will act as tiny bombs carrying a potentially deadly virus. When these bombs go off, that's when the nightmare will really begin.

There is a jail on Rikers Island called North Infirmary Command, or NIC. This building is usually reserved for the inmates you could not place in General Population. These include inmates that may be physically handicapped, who are HIV-positive, or inmates who suffer from sleep apnea and need a CPAP machine to sleep.

When I was there, the entire building except for the first floor was empty. Those who have tested positive for coronavirus should be housed in that building now. Moreover, every inmate should be tested for the coronavirus before they are housed. The same way a woman gets a pregnancy test when she first walks through the doors of Rikers Island, we should be able to test every single inmate coming into the jails for this virus.

There are medical personnel on Rikers. They come from companies that have contracts with New York City, so testing the inmates should be easier than testing the general public. Using the prison resources like this will prevent a citywide disaster.

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