New York City

Coronavirus threatens Rikers detainees, advocates warn

March 4, 2020 David Brand
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The steady spread of coronavirus in confined spaces, like cruise ships and nursing homes, has prompted advocates for the incarcerated to question how New York City plans to prevent and treat the illness inside another isolating facility — its jails.

The Department of Correction says the agency has already begun preparing staff to identify symptoms and act on suspected cases of the illness, but advocates say the effort demands a greater emphasis on detainee health.

“They’re already quarantined and that will spread like wildfire,” said Akeem Browder, an advocate for the rights of the incarcerated who was detained on Rikers Island. Browder founded the Kalief Browder Foundation in honor of his brother who committed suicide following a three-year stint on Rikers.

“I fear that if there were to be an outbreak, that our loved ones are not prepared, or the jails are not prepared to handle it,” he added

Detainees are among the most marginalized when it comes to disasters or public health crises, said Vidal Guzman, an organizer with the justice reform group JustLeadershipUSA.

“The individuals who always get the short end of the stick are black and brown communities, but especially the community that is incarcerated,” said Guzman, who spent time on Rikers as a detainee. “Imagine not being heard because you’re detained.”

The threat of COVID-19 to jail detainees and staff is particularly acute, wrote the New York City jail system’s former chief medical officer Dr. Homer Venters in an op-ed for The Hill on Feb. 29. The illness has already reached jails in China, where it originated.

“Our efforts should focus on the reality that COVID won’t be kept out, but we can manage the impact on health behind bars,” wrote Venters. “The same goes for courts, where judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors may limit court services or even close courts.”

New York City can learn lessons from the coordinated response to stopping the spread of another “novel” virus, H1N1, in 2009, Venters continued.

The Department of Corrections has begun that coordination, working with other city agencies, including the Health Department and Correctional Health Services, to identify detainees with COVID-19 symptoms and refer them for testing, said DOC spokesperson Peter Thorne.

“Correction officers have been trained to identify symptoms and are advised to follow basic flu protocols, such as covering nose/mouth when coughing or sneezing and washing hands frequently, and have the authority to refer anyone in custody to CHS for a medical evaluation,” Thorne said.

“The health and wellbeing of our personnel and people in custody is of paramount importance,” he added.

Advocates released balloons honoring those who have died behind bars at the entrance to Rikers Island last year. Photo: Phineas Ruekert/Brooklyn Eagle

DOC plans to send detainees showing symptoms of the illness to Bellevue or Elmhurst Hospital, or to the Communicable Disease Unit at West Facility on Rikers Island. In that regard, the city is treating the illness like other communicable diseases, including the flu.

All staff also undergo refresher training on resisting infectious diseases, according to DOC.

The leader of the union that represents New York City correction officers said the city jails have successfully resisted past infectious disease outbreaks and will work with DOC to “ensure every precautionary measure is taken.”

“This is not the first epidemic we’ve faced, as we have successfully kept officers safe from past viruses such as SARS and the swine flu by getting ahead of it and we’ll do exactly the same as we deal with the Coronavirus,” said Correction Officer Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen.

Detainees inside the jails remain the most vulnerable to the illness because they are stuck in a confined space and they receive treatment at the discretion of jail staff, advocates said.

Victor Herrera, an organizer with the justice reform group JustLeadership, said it was imperative that defendants are screened for illnesses like COVID-19 before entering jail, and that defendants, detainees and staff who have symptoms are hospitalized immediately.

But there’s an even more effective way to stop the spread of infectious disease inside jails, Herrera continued.

“Let them go,” he said. “Stop keeping people contained in those types of environments because those environments breed stuff like that.”

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