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New York City Department of Correction warns of COVID-19 crisis at Rikers Island

Lawmakers report awful conditions at Rikers Island
New York lawmakers describe deteriorating conditions at Rikers Island jail 10:16

The New York City Department of Correction is warning public defender groups of "an emerging COVID-19 crisis at Rikers Island" as the state has recently seen a record uptick in cases. The facility has been criticized by officials for having inhumane conditions and reported multiple inmate deaths this year. 

"The risks to the human beings in our custody are at a crisis level," commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said in a letter sent Tuesday and made public Wednesday.

According to the letter, 45% of those incarcerated at Rikers Island Jail complex have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and only 38% are fully vaccinated. On Tuesday, Schiraldi reported a 17% case positivity rate, which he said increased from the approximate 1% rate that was reported for the past several months.

"All indications suggest that our jail population faces an equal or greater level of risk from COVID now as it did at the start of the pandemic," the commissioner wrote. 

He called on the organizations to ask officials to "consider every available option to reduce the number of individuals in our jail" through actions including supervised releases and modifying sentence lengths under eligible circumstances. 

Rikers Island Coronavirus Outbreak COVID-19
This 2014 photo shows the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. Seth Wenig / AP

In response, the groups followed suit and urged officials to take action on the "immediate release of incarcerated people and the halt of new admissions to New York City jails."

"The virus is spreading like wildfire throughout Rikers Island and other DOC facilities, exacerbating an ongoing humanitarian crisis that has already taken the lives of sixteen people this year and forced countless others to endure life-threatening conditions while in custody," a joint statement issued Wednesday from groups including the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and Bronx Defenders read.

They accused the New York Department of Correction of being "incapable of caring for the health and safety of the people in its custody throughout the pandemic."

The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association also criticized the department's handling of inmates during the pandemic, saying in a statement that Schiraldi has "once again put thousands of lives in jeopardy."

Schiraldi said the department has taken various efforts to limit the spread of the Omicron virus variant, including the suspension of congregate services at Rikers' facilities, reductions in programming and the suspension of in-person visitations.

Omicron spike collides with holiday travel surge 04:13

"These measures will have considerable negative effects on a jail population that is still reeling from two years of COVID and a staffing crisis that has contributed to unprecedented levels of tension, anxiety, and violence within the jails," he stated in Tuesday's letter. "The consequences of removing these basic services and supports from those in our custody will be felt by both persons in custody and the officers who work hard every day to keep people here safe. We believe we have no choice." 

Rikers, which has housed inmates for decades on a 400-acre complex, is notorious for its lack of oversight and frequent violence. The complex has approximately 10,000 beds and is slated to close by 2027. In the meantime, lawmakers have taken steps to addressing the facility's conditions like releasing and transferring hundreds of inmates and enacting directives aimed at addressing overpopulation. 

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