Now, as a bleakwinter looms, NYC jails’ rising population and flawed COVID testing strategy put incarcerated people, jail staff and our communities at grave risk. If city and state officials continue to ignore the lessons wrought from the spring — primarily the necessity of mass releases — the consequences willbedeadly.
Other efforts at decarceration have completely stalled. In March, the Department of Correction worked with City Hall to release, under pre-existing law, 312 people serving city jail sentences. Since then, only one person has been released under this highly successful program. The more than 120 currently eligible people serving city sentences must be released.
From mid-March to early May, the number of people jailed in NYC for technical parole violations (such as missed phone appointments with their parole officer or substance use reoccurrence) dropped precipitously. But today, more than 200 people who would otherwise be free remain jailed in NYC by fiat of the state parole system. They must be released.
Preventing a pandemic like coronavirus from entering and spreading in jails is impossible. Even with mass releases, frequent testing is crucial to detect and curb infections. The COVID testing regime on Rikers Island remains deficient. Most egregious is the absence of routine testing for jail staff, who are significanttransmissionvectors and continue to have very high numbers of reported infections. Yet there is no policy for mandatory, regular testing of Rikers staff, exposing incarcerated people to serious unnecessary risk.
To make matters worse, the majority of people detained are not offered diagnostic testing after admission unless they show symptoms. This policy flouts the CDC’s findings that symptom-based testing severely undercounts the true number of infections, and that 50% of coronavirus transmission comes from people without symptoms. As of Dec. 25, 16.3% of incarcerated people in the city were housed in units designated “likely exposed but asymptomatic” due to a known exposure to a confirmed positive person, up from 7.5% on Dec. 12. Yet many if not most of the hundreds of people in “likely exposed” units are not being tested, which amounts to jail officials pulling the wool over their own eyes to the true extent of infections.
Incarcerated people deserve better; it is past time to bring mass testing to NYC’s jails.
COVID-19 devastated NYC’s jails once before. A second jail outbreak is imminent, if it hasn’talreadybegun. We must decarcerate our jails, and do everything we can to protect anyone left behind. Judges, prosecutors, jail officials, City Hall, Gov. Cuomo, the state Legislature, and the parole system have the power to act now to save lives. If they don’t take action, we fear that others will be left to carry out the dead.
Prins is assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. Kajeepeta is a Ph.D. student in epidemiology at Columbia University. Maurer is a specialist attorney with the New York County Defender Services DNA and Forensics Unit. Simpson is a civil rights attorney in the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society