I warned what would happen if Rikers Island inmates were released over coronavirus — and I was right

As a liberal Latino who was once homeless myself, I get it. But I also think we need to be realistic

Ralph Ortiz
New York
Thursday 21 May 2020 22:40 BST
De Blasio wants to make good on the promise he made, but now isn't the time
De Blasio wants to make good on the promise he made, but now isn't the time (REUTERS)

Rikers Island is a thorn on the side of New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio. As a former Correction Officer there, I can tell you that it’s impossible to please everyone. The mayor learned that the hard way by releasing 2,000 inmates ahead of time out of fear that they might contract coronavirus recently. I was not surprised that more than 50 of those released are already back in jail for new crimes.

As a liberal Latino who was once homeless myself, I get it. You don't want to keep jailing men of color who haven't committed violent or serious crimes. That’s great in theory, but not realistic. Especially in the case of repeat offenders, many are unemployed and have addiction/recovery issues they need treatment for, as well as nowhere to go once they're out. They add to the homeless population living on the subway and robbing others. The recent high rate of recidivism among inmates who have been released shows it's a dangerous, deadly revolving door in the middle of a pandemic.

Who are the inmates who have been released during the Covid-19 crisis? Well, one of them is Robert Pondexter. Pondexter, 57, was released on April 15, 2020 only to be arrested on April 28 for sexually assaulting a woman. Pondexter has an extensive history of sexual assault and now is being held on $250,000 bail.

Another is Pedro Vinent-Barcia. On June 29, 2018, Vinent-Barcia, 63, was arrested for the murder of Bernice Rosado, 51, by stabbing. He'd bullied her for months before finding her in a cellphone repair shop in Harlem and allegedly stabbing her repeatedly in the chest and back. As he was led away in handcuffs, he was reportedly heard saying, “Is she dead? I hope so.” Two years later, his legal aid team successfully argued that the coronavirus pandemic was exposing Vinent-Barcia to “serious harm” and that he should be released. A judge sided with the Legal Aid Society, who claimed their client had cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease and type II diabetes so keeping him in Rikers Island would kill him. Debilitating conditions they may be, but if Vinent-Barcia did murder his girlfriend, they didn’t prevent him from doing so.

Vinent-Barcia was released on March 26, 2020.

Another inmate, James Little, 41, was accused of allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. He was released from Rikers Island on March 28, 2020 due to Covid-19 concerns. Little was rearrested on April 8 for robbing the Apple Bank in Gramercy Park in Manhattan. It was just luck that Little did not kill or hurt anyone during the robbery.

Clearly we need a better plan. Knowing the layout of Rikers Island, I can assure you they have room to house potentially ill inmates and ones who are vulnerable and at risk. I worked at North Infirmary Command (NIC) and escorted many inmates to the West Facility. I've seen the hospital beds and private cells where the most notorious inmates are housed along with those who are sick, disabled, HIV-positive, or suffering from an infectious disease. NIC can hold 416 inmates but is now only housing 25. The West Facility, a hospital-style building, has 940 beds, many of which are currently not in use. These are smarter options than early release. New Yorkers deserve better from the mayor.

537 inmates at Rikers Island have tested positive for the coronavirus so far, and if any one of those inmates were released, they would pose a significant infection hazard to everyone else in New York. There is available space on Rikers Island for the sick inmates to recover and not pose a threat to other New Yorkers. But instead, there's now a rush to release these inmates because the mayor promised New Yorkers that he would shut down the island, and he’s seizing on this opportunity to make good on his promise.

While something must be done to improve Rikers, the solution isn't letting out inmates who are not healthy and have no jobs, homes or support systems. Letting loose men who have extensive criminal records during a medical crisis will only make our problems worse. I know, because I worked with these men every day.

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