Michael Skelly, spokesman for the New York City Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association, said this is just the start of “what we fear to be more.”
The news comes days after an investigator working at the jail died after testing positive for the virus, NBC News reports.
City leaders are now calling for emergency assistance to help elderly inmates, as there are reportedly more than 900 over the age of 50 on Rikers Island, and the majority of them having chronic medical conditions, officials say.
“[Wednesday] morning, it was revealed that a corrections officer working on Rikers Island tested positive for COVID-19. One of the first NYC deaths due to coronavirus was an investigator who works on Rikers. It is only a matter of time before more staff and incarcerated people become sick,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Council Member Brad Lander said in a statement.
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The union is calling on the city to order special masks and more gloves and hand sanitizer for prison staffers.
“I truly believe the jails are ticking time bombs,” said David Patton, executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York. “They’re overcrowded and unsanitary in the best of times. They don’t provide appropriate medical care in the best of times, and these certainly are not the best of times.”
Public defenders in New York have asked judges to release older and at-risk inmates from federal jails, noting that pretrial confinement “creates the ideal environment for the transmission of contagious disease.”
“Now, amid the rapid spread of COVID-19, the public health danger is even greater and more acute. I’m calling on the NYPD to suspend non-violent, so-called victimless quality of life arrests which could increase exposure rates among at-risk individuals, and calling on the Department of Corrections to release those who are most at risk from incarceration, where the close-quarters contact of our jails represents an immediate danger,” said Williams.
Meanwhile, with inmates being more susceptible to contracting the virus, rapper Meek Mill’s criminal justice organization REFORM Alliance has unveiled a policy recommendation called the S.A.F.E.R. Plan, which aims to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
“As our country takes measures to protect against coronavirus, we can’t afford to forget about the millions of people under the control of our criminal justice system,” said REFORM Alliance’s chief advocacy officer Jessica Jackson. “People in prisons, jails, or under community supervision are more at risk of contracting and spreading the virus, given their age, underlying health conditions, and close contact to each other. Protecting these individuals from coronavirus is not just a moral obligation, but necessary to preserve the health and safety of our communities.”
According to Complex, organizations that have endorsed the plan include the National Urban League, Justice Action Network, the American Conservative Union, and R Street Institute.
REFORM has also launched an online petition calling on the protection of inmates.
“Failing to act could expose tens of thousands of people in prisons and jails across the country to the virus,” reads the petition. “Given the crowded nature of our correctional institutions, an outbreak is likely and would not only endanger people in prisons but also correctional staff and outside communities.”
Folks wanting to address the inmate issue with the governor of their state can visit the REFORM page here.