Brooklyn Boro

First Rikers virus-positive fatality was jailed on technicality

April 6, 2020 Reuven Blau & Rosa Goldensohn, THE CITY THE CITY
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The first COVID-19 positive city jail inmate died in Bellevue Hospital Sunday as he awaited a hearing on a parole violation, according to multiple sources.

Michael Tyson, 53, had been in city custody since Feb. 28 and initially appeared to be recovering from the virus, a source familiar with his case said. He’d been moved from the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island to Bellevue on March 26, according to The New York Times, which first reported the death.

Tyson’s name was among the 100 detainees from The Bronx held on parole violations for whom the Legal Aid Society has been seeking immediate release, via a lawsuit filed in Bronx Supreme Court on  April 3.

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“We are both heartbroken and outraged to learn that our client, who was held on Rikers Island for a technical parole violation, has passed away from COVID-19,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at Legal Aid.

On March 27, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision would begin to release low-level technical parole violators from local jails, including up to 400 in New York City.

But the process has taken time because each case is reviewed by prosecutors and state prison officials.

Last month, 666 people were in jail due to a technical parole violation, like missing a curfew or meeting with a parole officer.

It is unclear what Tyson had done to violate his parole.

All told, 900 people in city jails have been let go and more are expected to be freed, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. That includes technical parole violators and city-sentence cases involving anyone who is serving a year or less for offenses that include petit larceny, misdemeanor drug possession, misdemeanor assault, disorderly conduct and theft of service raps, like turnstile jumping.

Cases Grow Behind Bars

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in city jails continues to rise.

All told, 273 detainees, 321 correction personnel, and 53 jail health staffers have tested positive for coronavirus as of Sunday, according to the Correction Department. Additionally, one correction officer and one investigator have died after contracting the virus.

Meanwhile, about 2,500 of the department’s uniformed officers and 200 civilians are out sick, according to a union source.

Last month, Ross MacDonald, the jail system’s top doctor, took to Twitterto warn that a “storm is coming,” and begged city officials to release as many vulnerable inmates as possible.

“A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient,” he ended his Twitter thread. “What will you be doing? What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”

Medical experts caution that jails are highly dangerous places during an outbreak, due to close quarters, the lack of private bathrooms and general unhealthy conditions.

Tyson was being held at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island before being taken to Bellevue. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

As for Tyson, his official cause of death has not been determined by the city’s Medical Examiner yet.

Luongo said it “would have been entirely avoidable if only Governor Cuomo had directed DOCCS to act decisively from the outset of this epidemic to release incarcerated New Yorkers who were uniquely vulnerable to the virus.”

She urged Cuomo to immediately free all technical parole violators and grant clemency to others locked up who are older or have health conditions.

“It is time for the governor to employ the full breadth of those powers and to act without delay to avoid further catastrophe,” she said. “DOCCS’ myopic over-reliance on re-incarceration, wholly unjustifiable at any time, is utterly disastrous in the era of COVID-19.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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