Coronavirus spread at Rikers is a 'public health disaster', says jail's top doctor

Miranda Bryant in New York
Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

The top doctor at Rikers Island said the coronavirus-hit New York jail is a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes” as he warned of the rapidly rising number of infections in the city’s jails.

In just 12 days, Ross MacDonald, the jail’s chief physician, said confirmed cases at Rikers had soared from one to nearly 200.

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Speaking in response to a letter from five New York district attorneys and a special narcotics prosecutor criticising the release of “high-risk” inmates following the outbreak of Covid-19, he wrote on Twitter this week: “The only part of the letter I can speak directly to is their failure to appreciate the public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.”

The notorious Rikers Island jail complex, one of the largest jails in the world, has become synonymous with violence and neglect, and is scheduled to shutter in 2026.

Despite following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and having “moved mountains to protect our patients”, MacDonald said infections were soaring.

He added: “This is not a generational public health crisis, rather it is a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen.”

He warned that it is “unlikely” they will be able to stop the growth, predicting that 20% of those infected will need hospital treatment and 5% ventilators.

He also called for the release of “as many vulnerable people as possible”.

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More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the US, more than anywhere in the world, and there are growing fears that an outbreak could spread rapidly through a vast network of federal and state prisons, county jails and detention centers.

With limited capacity nationally to test for Covid-19, men and women prisoners worry that they are last in line for information about the risks, and for treatment if showing flu-like symptoms.

According to figures published by the Legal Aid Society, on Tuesday there were 180 cases of coronavirus in New York city jails, including Rikers, out of a population of 4,604 – 13 more cases than the day before.

The infection rate for the city’s jails was 3.91%, equating to 39.1 infections per 1,000 people. In comparison, the infection rate for New York city was 0.5%, or five infections per 1,000 people.

Jared Trujillo, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, said Rikers was effectively the centre of the entire pandemic.

Now, Rikers proportionately is the epicentre of the Covid-19 epidemic and our clients are terrified, my members of the union are horrified about it, they’re horrified for their clients, being in court is dangerous for them. We have about two dozen members, probably more, that have either tested positive or just showing signs of Covid-19.”

For some vulnerable prisoners, he added, being in jail amid a coronavirus outbreak is “ultimately a death sentence for them”.

The Rikers Island complex in 2014. Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

He claimed a lot of inmates, many of whom he said are pre-trial, don’t have access to hand sanitiser or soap, are “caged” in large communal areas and that many clients have complained that they are not having symptoms of illness taken seriously.

He said the current environment is also having an impact on their mental health. “Just psychologically it’s really horrifying for people because they’re hearing that these people that they’ve been in close contact with, that they have been caged with for some length of time, have an illness, have a contagion, and there’s just nothing they can do.”

Unless more action is taken to release people from Rikers, he warned: “The conditions will only get worse.”

As of Tuesday morning, 141 staff members and 180 prisoners on Rikers Island and other city jails had tested positive for coronavirus. The city’s department of correction (DOC) said those people have been advised to self-quarantine and that they are following city guidelines to identify people they may have had contact with.

Peter Thorne, deputy commissioner of public information for New York City’s DOC, said it is doing “everything we can to safely and humanely house people in our custody amid the broader Covid-19 crisis”.

He added: “We have made tremendous efforts to increase social distancing throughout our facilities and escalated our hygiene and sanitation protocols in accordance with guidance from the city’s department of health. We work closely with correctional health services to ensure that those who are symptomatic are promptly isolated and referred for treatment as necessary.”

The DOC said there was an “adequate supply of soap and cleaning products” and that all prisoners have access to sinks, soap and water. However, they are not allowed hand sanitiser because it is seen as a “security risk”.

They said any employee with respiratory problems is sent home and is not allowed back without documentation from a medical professional that they do not have Covid-19 or flu.

Measures also include screening any person entering the jail “ for flu-like symptoms”, isolating prisoners “if clinically indicated” that they may have Covid-19 and placing any new arrivals with symptoms or people in custody who have tested positive in a separate facility.

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Across the state, Trujillo said the problems are “similar” and called for more people to be released – particularly the elderly and the immunocompromised.

“It’s just something that’s so terrifying for people that are in, but then also their families, and it’s even exacerbated by the fact that right now people aren’t getting visits,” he added.

New York state’s department of corrections and community supervision (DOCCS) said that as of Tuesday morning, 123 employees, 14 prisoners and nine people on parole were confirmed to have coronavirus.

For each confirmed case, a DOCCS spokeswoman said they work with the department of health to identify people who have potentially been exposed and notify them to try to stop it spreading.

She said that staff and prisoners have been given information on preventive measures and they have suspended transfers and visitors.

The Bureau of Prisons has temporarily halted visitation at all 122 federal correctional facilities across the US, including both social and legal visitation, though officials have said some exceptions could be made for legal visits.

Associated Press contributed to this report