Allegedly Special: Covid-19 in New York City's Jails

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As part of this week’s series on New York City’s criminal justice system one year after Covid-19 spurred the closure of courts, Sean Piccoli reported on the status of coronavirus in local jails.

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How Are NYC’s Jails Handling Covid-19 One Year After Coronavirus Hit Courts?

By Sean Piccoli

With paperwork in hand and a disposable mask looped around his ears, Marco Santiago of Brooklyn walked out of the Rikers Island jail on a chilly March afternoon and sat down on a concrete ledge to wait for the Q100 bus. Santiago, 28, had no coat and no phone. But he was going home after seven months in lockup that saw more Covid-19 cases seeping into the New York City jail system.

He was also fully vaccinated. “Both shots,” he said, with the second jab delivered two weeks ahead of his release. 

Santiago said he served his time without catching the virus. He counted himself fortunate. He was tested for Covid-19 multiple times, he said, and inmates did not have to share cells. But he also got into a fistfight, and he often found social distancing difficult to maintain outside of his cell during the day. “Everybody’s all over the place and together, even though we should be six feet apart,” Santiago said.

Does his experience mean the city’s jails are safer today than they were one year ago, when New York City’s chief jail physician called them a “public health disaster” on Twitter?   

“It’s a good question,” said Ross MacDonald, whose viral Twitter thread last March sounded the alarm from inside Rikers’ walls. MacDonald is Chief Medical Officer for Correctional Health Services (CHS), the city-run NYC Health + Hospitals division that provides inmate care. But in a brief telephone conversation with Allegedly this month, he referred questions about the state of the jails to a CHS spokesperson, who did not respond to follow-up inquiries.

More than 1,200 jail guards out of a uniformed force numbering more than 8,000 tested positive for the virus in the first two months of the pandemic. At least six died and several filed suit against DOC for forcing them to work 24-hour shifts in life-threatening pandemic conditions. 

More than 500 inmates across the city’s nine detention facilities — seven located on Rikers Island — tested positive in the same time frame. Their numbers included the only three inmates whom DOC officially considers Covid-19 deaths in custody, although more got sick while in jail and died after being released 

Among the uncounted was Raymond Rivera, 55, who fell ill at Rikers awaiting a hearing on a minor parole violation and died at Bellevue Hospital in April.  

The city freed hundreds of people to reduce jail populations and took other steps to blunt the disease’s transmission. But crowding persisted as people in custody waited their turns in a court system backlogged by the pandemic. As bail reforms intended to keep people out of jail were partially undone, and the jail population rebounded, infections ticked up and then climbed more sharply in the winter, in a trend that roughly tracked the city’s overall struggle to contain Covid-19.  

To date, more than 1,100 inmates have tested positive for the virus  and almost 1,890 Department of Correction employees, uniformed and not, have been infected

The picture today is mixed. The incidence of Covid-19 in jails — the percentage of jail patients newly testing positive — is at 0.12 percent through March 15, down sharply from the spikes of this past winter and the spring of 2020. But it’s climbing again through the first two weeks of the month alongside other indicators of the disease’s reach into the jails.

The jail population has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with more than 5,550 people in custody. It’s unclear how many of them have been vaccinated while inside, or how many jail staffers have received shots. Infection figures kept by the Correctional Health Service and the Board of Correction don’t discuss vaccinations. A city correction spokesperson declined to speak on the record about pandemic safety and did not provide a statement before deadline. 

The DOC did respond to an article in The City this week about undercounted inmate Covid-10 deaths, with a written statement that the jails are employing “every possible measure” to keep staff and detainees safe, and that Covid-19 transmission inside the jails “is, and has remained, lower than the citywide average.”

Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit against the city’s jails filed by current and former inmates is crawling through preliminary hearings. Another lawsuit, filed this month by jail guards, accuses the DOC of deliberately misdiagnosing Covid-infected staff to dupe them into staying on the job and working longer shifts amid an epidemic of absenteeism and early retirements. 

A spokesperson for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the union representing the city’s uniformed jail staff, did not return calls seeking comment about the pandemic and officer safety.

Marco Santiago, the Brooklyn man who entered the system in August, said his confinement at Rikers was his first time inside and, he hopes, his last. “You live and you learn,” he said on the bus ride to Queens Plaza. Asked about his future plans, he said he has a girlfriend and four young children — the oldest age four. “I’m going to see my girl and see my kids,” he said, “and try to find a job.”