Coronavirus Live Updates: As N.Y. Reports a Record Death Toll, Scientists Warn the Virus Might Not Fade in Summer

“To not have any control over anything, to just be waiting and on the edge of your seat, it’s mind blowing at this point.” Janette’s fiancée, Michael, is detained on Rikers Island. He’s serving time because he failed to check in with his officer, violating his parole for drug possession. Now Michael, and hundreds like him, are at the center of a public health crisis experts have been warning about for weeks. “Two months owed to the city, it’s not worth somebody’s life. You’re giving people a life sentence leaving them there.” TV announcers: “An inmate who tested positive for Covid-19 died yesterday at Bellevue Hospital.” “Rikers is one of the largest correctional facilities in the world, and right now, the infection rate there is seven times that of New York City.” “Is our prison system equipped to handle an outbreak?” “When the coronavirus seeped into the jails, public officials, public advocates all rushed to address the situation.” “We will continue to reduce our jail population.” “We’re releasing people who are in jails because they violated parole.” When the virus was first identified in New York, there were 5,400 inmates in city jails. To combat the spread of the virus, the Board of Correction recommended the release of 2,000 inmates. Parole violators, people over 50, those medically at risk and inmates serving short sentences. But two weeks later, government officials have released just half. “Prisons, jails, are acting as incubators for the virus.” “Think about the jails as the world’s worst cruise ship.” “If we get a real situation here, and this thing starts to spread, it’s going to spread like wildfire, and New York is going to have a problem on their hands.” Thousands of employees travel through the city’s jails every day, forming a human lifeline to the city. Inmates also come and go. “So it’s particularly urgent to get this under control because it’s not just about who is in the jails right now, it’s really about the city.” This is Kenneth Albritton. He was being held on Rikers as Covid-19 spread through the city. “It’s scary in there, that’s what I would tell you. When I was in there, you had guys making their own masks with their shirts. They didn’t want to breathe in the air with the same people that’s in the dorm with them.” Kenneth was on parole after serving time for second-degree manslaughter when he was 18. “I was brought to Rikers Island on Feb. 5 for a curfew violation. For me reading a paper and watching the news, and I’m seeing that they’re saying no more than 10 to a group. But you have 50 guys that’s in a sleeping area. It’s impossible to tell us to practice social distancing there when they’re being stacked on top of each other.” After someone in his dorm tested positive, Kenneth says he was quarantined. But less than 24 hours later, he was released. He was given a MetroCard, but no guidance about how to deal with the potential spread of Covid-19. “If they would have tested me on my way out, then I would have felt like, OK, they took the proper steps. When I left the pen to come home, they told us nothing about how we should handle situation. Even though nobody told me nothing, I felt I should quarantine myself.” “Not much has been considered in terms of what happens to inmates after their release, and once they’re back in the communities and in their homes.” When we asked about the pace of releases, the mayor’s office agreed it was slow, but said they don’t have full control of the process. The state’s Department of Corrections said it’s working as quickly as possible. “My fiancée who’s on Rikers, we had our son in September and about two weeks after that, he found out that he had a warrant for his arrest.” “Oh, you got those boogies. I told you that baby likes that camera — Oh my goodness.” “This is a person with nonviolent charges. It’s like a real health care disaster. The parolees is like the easiest thing they do. Right. Yeah, they said about 500 or 700 parolees. I just had read it last night. Yes, that he signed off on it.” The outbreak at city jails doesn’t just pose a threat to inmates. On March 27, Quinsey Simpson became the first New York City corrections officer to die from Covid-19. “Correction officers every day, despite harm to themselves and their family, are rolling on this island to do this job.” Officer Husamudeen criticizes the city’s response, though he’s arguing for improving jail conditions not releasing inmates. “That’s not the answer to solving this problem. They haven’t served their time. If they served their time, they wouldn’t be on parole.” But his opposition is in the minority. While the overall population at Rikers has decreased, there’s an unusual consensus from public defenders, prosecutors and corrections officials that the releases aren’t happening quickly enough. “We need to reframe our thinking around public safety right now to accommodate the fact that public safety includes trying to prevent viral spread.” “My brother who’s a New York City schoolteacher contracted the coronavirus. Are you OK? Oh, I love you. Oh, you scared? What’s the matter? Oh, God. Don’t get into your head that it’s going to beat you. You’re going to beat this. OK? OK, I love you. OK, I’ll call you in a little while. OK. As a teacher, he had a lot of precautions, and thought he was following everything he was supposed to be doing, and he contracted the coronavirus going into a school. This is why I’m so adamant about fighting for Michael to get home. The person standing right next to you can have it and you wouldn’t even know it.” Across city jails, hundreds of inmates and corrections workers have tested positive, and half of all inmates are now under quarantine. “Covid-19 and the pandemic has exposed pretty rapidly sort of all of the weakest places in our social safety nets. And it is no surprise that one of those is the ways that jails put people at risk.” “I know, love — This is just ridiculously scary.”

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