The Prison Coronavirus Disaster Everybody Warned About Is Unfolding in New York City

Jail officials urge more and faster releases as the virus spreads between staff and inmates.


New York City is becoming America's coronavirus hot spot, with thousands of new cases being diagnosed every day. The number of infections in the Big Apple passed 10,000 over the weekend. By Saturday, 60 infected people in New York City had died. By Sunday morning, that number jumped to 114.

New York was always likely to be a hub of infection, given the size and density of the population. For those same reasons, the city's jails were bound to be prime locations to spread the coronavirus. As criminal justice advocates beg the city to keep people out of Rikers Island and other jails, we're now seeing the consequences.

On Saturday, Jaqueline Sherman, interim chair of New York City's Board of Correction, sent a letter to top criminal justice officials (including the district attorneys of all five boroughs) warning that coronavirus infections were spreading at Rikers and other jails. It says that over the course of the last week, 21 prisoners, 12 Department of Corrections employees, and five health officials serving New York City's jails have tested positive for the coronavirus. Another 58 people were being quarantined and monitored for possible symptoms.

The city has identified 40 people for release, pending approval from the district attorneys offices. Sherman bluntly tells them, "This number is far from sufficient to protect against the rapid spread of coronavirus in the jails."

Sherman also reminds these people that Rikers Island is not just a prison for hardened criminals who have been convicted of serious and violent crimes, even if that's how people see the place. It's where thousands of people go when they can't make bail. (Even though New York has reformed its cash bail system so that it's not required for most misdemeanors, judges are still authorized to set money demands for a host of more serious crimes.) It's also where parole violators are sent. Sherman notes that more than 600 prisoners in New York's jail system are being held for technical parole violations. That means they didn't violate the law but broke court-mandated rules of behavior, like violating curfew or missing a meeting with a parole officer. Some of them are back in jail for failing a drug test. Another 551 people in city jails are serving prison terms of less than a year. Sherman is urging the city to follow in the footsteps of Ohio and California and try to find ways to reduce the city's jail population.

Meanwhile, the New York Police Department (NYPD) doesn't seem to see the need to scale back its policing of low-level crimes. At a press conference on Friday, Commissioner Dermot Shea said he no intention of ending "broken windows policing," the practice of arresting people for low-level "quality of life" crimes.

But as of Sunday, the NYPD has reported 98 confirmed cases of the coronavirus among its own staff, both police and civilian employees. The spread of the coronavirus is bouncing back and forth between law enforcement and the people they're arresting and imprisoning. This is going to lead to deaths on both sides of the thin blue line. The first person connected to New York City's jail system to die of the coronavirus was not an inmate—it was a jail investigator from the Department of Correction who worked in an office three miles from Rikers.

The New York Post has kept up its crime fearmongering with this lovely misleading headline: "Man robbed at gunpoint after coronavirus-related release from Rikers." One might assume this headline to mean that one of the people released from Rikers because of the coronavirus had gone on to rob somebody. In fact, it's the opposite: The man who had been released from jail was robbed. If that weren't enough, the reporters start the story by declaring, "He was safer at Rikers." No. No, he wasn't.

NEXT: We Will Regret Not Taking the Economic Effects of Mass Quarantine More Seriously

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  1. “Home of New York’s Boldest”

    Until the start of cold season. Then the roaring lions become mewling kittens.

    1. Who, exactly, is left in NYC’s jails now after their bail reform efforts of the last 3 months? My guess is the violent. So violent that even NYC locked them up in lieu of giving them a citation. And now NYC wants to let these people out? While closing gun stores, overloading/closing NICS, so even if you were able to buy a gun in NY, you can’t now.

      At a certain point, you start to wonder if maximizing public health is really what’s on these politicians’ minds.

      1. Cuomo’s already on the record about “saving just one life”.

        1. That’s great…then we can just build a wall around the city, have the military man the walls, and dump all our criminals inside to let the good Lord Darwin sort it all out for them.

          Someone should make a movie about that…

          1. I would suggest Kurt Russell stars in it, but he may be to old.

            1. Give it to Josh Brolin. They play kind of the same characters.

              Of course, Hollywood would insist the part go to a trans-otherkin of color, but what can you do?

              1. As long as they defeat the bad guys, the least we can do is respect their choice of pronouns.

                Can’t we all get along? Haha

        2. Letting a population of criminals who may or may not have been exposed to COVID-19 in the name of public health. Hmmm … is my brain wired incorrectly? I don’t see how that could possibly help. Lock down the jails and prisons, they are the most easily quarantined.

      2. ” Meanwhile, the New York Police Department (NYPD) doesn’t seem to see the need to scale back its policing of low-level crimes. ”

        Maybe the threat of coronavirus in jail will help motivate criminals to refrain from committing “low-level crimes” for a while.

        During natural disasters, looters are shot. It’s time to knock off the bullshit for a while.

        The last thing we need now is yet *another* green light for crime.

  2. Ordinary law abiding citizens locked down at home, so yeah, let free the infectious criminals from jail.

    1. And give them a green light for committing more crime!

      1. I shall have to shoot criminals from a social distance of two meters, correct?

  3. This will be as effective as was releasing all the passengers on all the cruise ships.
    Oh, what? They were NOT released? They were locked up?

    1. An order prohibiting the carrying or possession of firearms or any instrument which is capable of producing bodily harm and which is carried or possessed with the intent to use the same to cause such harm

      “I have no intent to cause such harm. Now leave me alone.”

      1. can’t carry and whats this can’t posses does that include in the home possession? both are illegal acts.

  4. Luckily, bail reform in NY means they never get to jail in the first place.

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  6. Hmmm. What if ostracization was the only penalty for every crime? Hmmm.

    1. Banishment.

  7. Sure would be nice to know how many of those people showed symptoms, right?

  8. Can’t you understand how releasing the rats from the ships could have contributed to the spread of the bubonic plagues of the 14th century. Releasing prisoners is akin to the same.

  9. They should release the old prisoners before they get the virus and use up hospital beds. People over 60 have a much lower rate of recidivism.

  10. Prison should be the easiest place to quarantine people.
    Lock them in their cells.

  11. Finally! The death sentence for victimless plant leaves George Holy War Bush and Bill Clinton repeatedly begged for has arrived. Locking kids of non-conservative persuasions and pigmentations into government rape cages loaded with China virus vectors is God’s Own Prohibitionist answer to the prayers of the faithful. May it backfire into their faces!

  12. This is clearly an urgent problem which should be prioritized over testing, vaccine research and everything else. We don’t want convicted felons to suffer.

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  14. [quote]This is going to lead to deaths on both sides of the thin blue line.[/quote]

    We must remember that the “thin blue line” is the one that separates citizens from the country’s largest criminal gang.

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  16. Sorry Shackleford….Not really feeling too much sympathy for murderers, rapists and thieves right now.

    1. Those were all released years ago. All they have now is potheads and driving-while-brown perps.

  17. Reducing prison population reduces risk to prison workers.

    Same goes for the INS detention facilities.

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