Brooklyn Boro

DA Eric Gonzalez appears to send mixed signals on conditions on Rikers Island

April 3, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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On the one hand, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez wrote an editorial in The New York Times published on Monday that called upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release people from prison due to the danger of the COVID-19 virus. On the other hand, he signed his name to a letter that warned Mayor Bill de Blasio of the risks of releasing certain people from prison.

The opinion piece in the Times referred to the current situation as “a public health crisis that threatens to become a humanitarian disaster.”

The editorial, which also included Dr. Mary Bassett, a former NYC health commissioner, and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, praised Cuomo’s decision to release 1,100 people from prison in response to the dangerous conditions created by the virus and called upon him to go even further.

“If we don’t act fast, we jeopardize the lives of many,” said the editorial penned by Gonzalez and others. “Worse yet, we risk creating a uniquely deadly incubator for the virus.”

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They cited limited access to soap and water plus shared bathrooms, mess halls and living quarters that put not only prisoners at risk, but also corrections officers.

That editorial called upon Cuomo to grant compassionate release to elderly inmates and those with health conditions that put them at higher risk, to release those held on technical parole violations, to give early parole to those who are within 180 days of their release, and to furlough low-risk inmates through the end of the crisis.

A separate letter signed by Gonzalez and the city’s other four district attorneys and addressed to de Blasio and Department of Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brann had a much different tone: Instead of warning of the dangers of Rikers Island, that letter touts its safety.

“We are writing now to provide our perspective on this process, and to ask that you immediately reassure the public and the courts that the city’s jail system is capable of appropriately managing the health needs of the remaining inmates, in a manner consistent with recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control for managing COVID-19 in correctional and detention facilities,” said the letter to de Blasio from the five New York City DAs.

While the letter strikes the opposite tone regarding the safety of people locked up on Rikers Island, the letter to the mayor discusses a different population than the one mentioned in the editorial.

In the letter to de Blasio, Gonzalez and others complain that the commissioner of correction wanted to release people locked up on domestic violence or sex offense charges. They also expressed concern that people were being released without consideration for housing, supervision and support services.

“At this point, the seemingly haphazard process by which at-risk inmates are identified, and the reports that those released may include violent offenders, are creating a public perception that our city’s jails may be incapable of providing sufficient health care for the remaining population of inmates. We believe this perception is wrong,” the letter said.

The letter written by the five DAs calls upon de Blasio to assure people that people locked up are being given “the resources necessary to live in sanitary conditions with quality medical care,” that the recent reduction in the prison population has made them all safer, and that they have a plan for any inmates who contract the virus.

The DAs also asked de Blasio to assure the public that the city is releasing people after a review of public safety, that resources are being provided for people being released, and that additional resources will be allocated to protect victims and survivors given the unexpected return of individuals to the community.

Gonzalez explained to the Brooklyn Eagle that he hadn’t intended on sending a mixed message but was merely urging the mayor to make it clear that people who aren’t being released are being provided with proper medical care.

“The goal of the letter was to urge the mayor and the DOC commissioner to be transparent about their plans to provide necessary medical care to those who, in the interest of public safety, must remain on Rikers Island,” he said.

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