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Cutting Jail Populations Is Imperative for Fighting Covid-19

As the pandemic continues to unfold, the situation at New York City’s Rikers Island jail demonstrates the urgent need for action.

May 8, 2020

Jails and prisons across the United States are hotbeds of coronavirus infection. New York City jails are among the hardest hit—roughly 370 of the 3,900 currently incarcerated individuals who received testing are infected, suggesting an infection rate more than 4.5 times the city average and 25 times the national average. Additionally, more than 1,200 staff members have tested positive for Covid-19.

A human rights crisis on its own, this runaway infection poses a risk to the broader population, too. New York City must continue to reduce the jail population and improve conditions on Rikers Island and elsewhere to avoid further transmission. That means taking all steps necessary to reduce the flow of people into city jails while also improving testing availability and continuing efforts to move those in custody to unused spaces to improve social distancing.

Social distancing is helping limit the spread of Covid-19 in New York. But the practice is extremely challenging in any confined setting, including on Rikers Island, where beds are typically three feet apart. Prolonged exposure to the virus also increases the risk of infection. But people in jails around the country spend most of their day in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces—where the virus is 18 times more likely to spread compared to open air spaces, according to early evidence.

These conditions are risky for everyone—and could be a virtual death sentence for some individuals. Approximately 470 people aged of 50 or older remain in the city’s custody. They face an increased risk of infection and death, as do people with chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and lung disease. Recent estimates suggest that more than half of those in city custody have a chronic condition. Due to continuing disparities in access to care, people of color—who are already overrepresented on Rikers Island and in the criminal justice system writ large—are also more likely to die once infected.

Further, while Rikers is an island, it is not isolated. Staff enter and leave the facility every day. People detained there receive critical medical care at city hospitals, and incarcerated people cycle through regularly. Ordinarily, nearly 30 percent of people are detained for four days or less. This turnover means Covid-19 can spread between Rikers and the city in both directions. A recent study highlights what’s at stake, concluding that reduced arrests and accelerated releases could help prevent the deaths of 23,000 people behind bars and 76,000 in the general population.

Since the outbreak began, city and state officials have taken important steps to reduce the jail population, including releasing many people awaiting trial and hundreds serving short sentences. New York City’s jail population is now under 4,000, the lowest it has been since 1946. Daily admissions also appear to be down.

But hundreds of people remain in city jails on technical parole violations, such as missing a drug treatment class. (Importantly, a person charged with a technical violation has not committed a separate crime.)

State parole officials must act quicker to lift warrants, expedite hearings, and find a way to use videoconferencing as a substitute during the crisis, as California has done.

And, as of early April, people being held on nonviolent charges still made up 14 percent of those detained pretrial. Prosecutors and judges should work with defense attorneys to reconsider the necessity of their continued detention. More people in jail is the last thing the city needs, especially now that crime rates are receding.

More must also be done for those who remain in other jails across the country. Jails need to reopen unused correctional facility spaces to reduce population density, as Rikers has done. Places with evidence of increasing transmission must move to universal testing of correctional populations, including for incarcerated individuals who are asymptomatic, as has been done in other confined living spaces such as some homeless shelters and some state prisons. Testing results are critical to informing isolation efforts and policy discussions around increasing the speed and scope of reducing incarceration.

Finally, city jails must ensure they adhere to CDC guidelines for correctional facilities. Everyone, including corrections officers, should be issued personal protective equipment. That’s the thrust of an order by a Queens judge, which required many working in city jails to be issued N95 masks.

However, even a clean jail is no substitute for simply having fewer people there. Avoiding having individuals in close quarters remains the best public health measure during this pandemic.

Maria R. Khan is an associate professor of epidemiology in the Department of Population Health at the NYU Grossman School of MedicineAmes Grawert is senior counsel in the the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.