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Following Dramatic Spike In COVID-19 Cases, Advocates And Public Defenders Join Call For Decarceration On Troubled Rikers Island

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The commissioner of the Department of Correction is sounding the alarm about a surge in COVID-19 cases on Rikers Island.

It's a new element adding to the lingering chaos that includes violence and death.

CBS2's Aundrea Cline-Thomas has more on the new pleas to address yet another problem.

The crisis on Rikers Island is now even more dangerous. It's so bad, in a letter to judges, attorneys and other legal stakeholders, outgoing Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi is urging the courts to release some detainees through identifying those who are high risk, supervised release, or other means.

This as the COVID infection rate nearly doubled -- from 9.5% on Monday to more than 17% on Tuesday. And only 38% of those incarcerated are fully vaccinated.

"Even though there has been a number of cases, there have not been hospitalizations," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Context, the mayor said, makes this scenario and his response different from last year,

Public defenders and advocates are echoing the commissioner's calls to decarcerate.

"Today, the population at Rikers is 2,000 people higher than it was when we got COVID under control at Rikers last time," said Corey Stoughton of the Legal Aid Society. "We can reduce the population. We did it before with no cost to public safety."

To limit the spread of COVID, the DOC is reducing programs and services for detainees and not allowing visitors, policies in the past that lead to mounting tensions and violence.

Another concern is how COVID could impact already dire staffing shortages.

The correction officers union is under a vaccine mandate, and wanted a similar mandate for detainees and visitors. It is now saying, "The commissioner's negligence is going to leave our jails on the potential brink of another catastrophe."

The legal community is also sounding off, with the courts calling the letter "blame shifting," while district attorneys say they're reviewing cases, weighing who can be safely released.

The Omicron variant is now an added layer to already mounting concerns at the troubled jail complex.

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