How to save lives in jail right now: Learn from mistakes made in earlier COVID waves

When COVID-19 first hit New York City, incarcerated people, oversight agencies, advocates, doctors and epidemiologists sounded the alarm about the humanitarian crisis the pandemic would unleash in our jails and prisons. The danger was clear: Without swift and dramatic action, sickness and death would sweep NYC’s correctional facilities and inevitably spread to the broader community. The ensuing decarceration effort, imperfect as it was, yielded less crowded jails, which undoubtedly slowed the spread of COVID and saved lives. Still, incarcerated people and jail staff suffered more than 2,000 confirmed infections and at least 16 deaths.

Corrections Officers line up in walkway over White St. at the Manhattan Detention Complex.
Corrections Officers line up in walkway over White St. at the Manhattan Detention Complex. (Marc A. Hermann/New York Daily News)

Now, as a bleak winter 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 will be deadly.

Why were NYC’s hard-fought spring decarceration efforts undone so quickly? As the jail population dropped by 30% from mid-March to late April, Gov. Cuomo personally insisted on rolling back bail reform — days before the first COVID-related death of an incarcerated person in NYC jails.

Predictably, prosecutors and judges have taken advantage of their renewed license to jail. Since the bail reform rollback went into effect on July 2, new jail admissions have consistently outpaced new releases. As a result, NYC jails hold 1,000 more people than they did on that date. The primary driver of this 24% increase is pretrial detention — prosecutors seeking and judges setting bail on people awaiting trial. More people are in pretrial detention today than right before the pandemic, and the bail reform rollback is a significant reason for that.

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.

Larger jail populations mean dangerous crowding. Many Rikers Island housing areas are currently over 75% capacity. Jail dormitory-style housing has shown COVID prevalence rates three times higher than cell-based units, and nearly 50% of Rikers’ dormitories are over half full. This means more than 1,600 people jailed on Rikers are sleeping in rooms with dozens of people where the beds cannot all be six feet apart.

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 significant transmission vectors 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’t already begun. 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


Sign up for the Newsletter