Rikers Island and Coronavirus – America’s New Death Row

Rikers Island and Coronavirus – America’s New Death Row
Rikers Island "COVID-19 Action Plan"? Inmates and Officers Die as the City Does Precious Little (photo from City of New York)

Can I Sue the Jail for Coronavirus?

“Can I sue the Department of Corrections if I catch coronavirus?” is a question we hear on an almost daily basis.  If you are inmate at New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island, the chances are catching the deadly virus are the highest of anywhere in the world. In the words of Riker’s union boss, “We are the epicenter of the epicenter.”

The current infection numbers are chilling. As of May 14th, just 4 people out of every one thousand people in the United States were infected by the coronavirus. That means a rate of infection of 0.44%. On Rikers Island, the virus toll stands at 113 per 1000 people. That’s 1,681 people.

Although the official data stands at 1,681 people, one union official says the real rate of infection is closer to 30% or 5,000 people. Those numbers are staggering.

How can there be such a staggering difference in the rates of infection? New York City won’t provide real time data. Correctional Health Services (CHS), a division of NYC Health and Hospitals, has refused to publish current data about the COVID-19 situation in NYC jails, including the cumulative total number of people who have contracted coronavirus in DOC custody and the total number of people in DOC custody tested for the virus.

New York’s Legal Aid Society has called for more transparency. To date, however, repeated demands and Freedom of Information Law requests have been ignored. Even the corrections officers’ union, the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) can’t get answers. (As of May 14th, we believe 1,319 staff members at Rikers have been infected.)

Whether you are guard or an inmate, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. Thousands of people at Rikers have been exposed to coronavirus. Already many have died.

March 2020 – The Jail’s Own COronavirus Pandemic Begins

A small article in the New York Daily News on March 18, 2020 said that an inmate at Rikers Island had tested positive for coronavirus. That was hours after COBA announced that an officer had also tested positive. From what officers and inmates tell us, the city’s Department of Corrections was completely unprepared.

With just a little preparation, the city could have handled the problem and stopped the spread of the virus. As today’s numbers show, they failed miserably.

Just two weeks after the first case had been reported, the numbers had increased by over 2000%. By the beginning of April, 231 inmates and 223 staff members had tested positive. In one day, the numbers increased by over 100.

Rikers isn’t a prison. It’s a jail meaning that many of the prisoners have not been convicted of a crime. Under our Constitution, criminal defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. But for those who can’t make bail, their pretrial detention could turn into the death penalty even though they had not been convicted of anything except being too poor to make bail.

The jail’s own chief physician admitted early in the pandemic that the city wasn’t doing enough. With as many as a third of the jail’s population and staff infected, his prediction came true.

One inmate told a reporter that despite a history of respiratory illness, his requests for medical treatment were denied. That’s a common theme we hear constantly. The other major complaint is that cells are filthy, there are no gloves or masks and that beds are crowded just 3 feet apart. (An NYC Department of Corrections official says, it has “conducted extensive

outreach” about hand-washing and that it “is committed to robust sanitation protocols throughout its facilities and transportation vehicles, and has ramped up existing cleaning policies to combat the potential spread of the coronavirus.”)

Today the Intercept reported that some low risk offenders ordered released six weeks ago are still in jail. The article tracks one inmate, David Campbell who was serving a 1 year sentence.

“In early April, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office consented to the release of David Campbell from Rikers Island jail on the condition of electronic monitoring. At the time, Campbell was one of 270 people that the DA’s office had deemed eligible for release in light of the perilous spread of the novel coronavirus in New York prisons and jails. Six weeks have since passed, and Campbell remains incarcerated, sharing a dormitory with over 30 others in the jail complex where they sleep 2 feet apart from each other.”

Campbell’s plight is not an isolated incident.

We still don’t know how many inmates have died. The city won’t respond to Freedom of Information requests and some very sick inmates were released, presumably to die at home.

Are Jails Responsible for Coronavirus Deaths?

Although the plight of inmates at Rikers Island is complex, we believe the city is responsible for inmates who have died from coronavirus exposure at the jail.

Everything we hear – both from staff and inmates – is that the jail was ill prepared for the pandemic. Masks weren’t available until long after the virus had spread throughout the facility. Supplies of basic essential items such as soap and masks remain spotty despite what the city says. Inmates are ordered released but remain within the facility. Beds are sometimes just 2 feet apart. Inmates must share common telephones and tables yet alcohol and hand sanitizer are considered contraband.

Our jail death and injury lawyers are actively working with our New York legal team and investigating coronavirus related deaths at both Rikers Island and jails throughout the United States. We are dedicated to helping protect our nation’s vulnerable prison population by prosecuting COVID-19 death cases. There is simply no excuse for New York’s neglect and gross negligence.

If a loved one has died because of exposure to coronavirus while in a jail, contact us online, by email at [hidden email] or by phone at 866-836-4684. All inquiries are confidential.

*Please note that we are a jail death and injury firm. Our COVID-19 cases are for inmates who died while in custody or from an infection that happened while in custody. We get several calls a day from concerned relatives worried because their loved ones are being denied masks, distancing, etc. Unfortunately, that is happening in jails and prisons across the United States. We do not handle class action civil rights cases. If you are calling because a loved one isn’t getting the treatment or help he needs to avoid COVID-19, try calling the ACLU or your local legal aid office.


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