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Rikers Island Omicron’s fears are spiraling in New York

“What we’re hearing now is: ‘Everybody’s sick.'”

For months, Elizabeth Fischer and other public defenders in New York City contested the release of prisoners from the notorious prison of Rikers Island, which points to documented problems with staffing of correctional officers and prompt medical care. But even in a single year of violence behind bars – 16 people have died in city prisons, the most since 2016 – those arguments have not always been successful.

What’s new now, she said, are levels of anxiety and fear reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, fueled by the rapid spread of the virus. Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus in New York City and beyond.

“What can we do? What haven’t we tried yet? ” Fischer, an attorney for Harlem’s Neighborhood Protection Service, asked in an interview.

Following Tuesday’s dire warning from the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) commissioner about an increase in COVID-19 cases among inmates at Rikers Island, attorneys representing the incarcerated defendants keep wondering why the alarm wasn’t sent out sooner. They also paint a picture of a population that is particularly vulnerable to a new variant, one that even has three-times vaccinated residents outside the prison walls living in fear.

Corey Stoughton, an attorney with the Legal Aid Association, told The Daily Beast: “This variation comes at a time when the Rikers health system is collapsing. “It’s just one of the things that makes this a disaster.”

Stoughton, who says the majority of her clients are incarcerated at Rikers, added that over the past six months she has heard “countless lines” of complaints about prison violence and lack of care. medical. But in recent days, she’s heard more from clients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and is now concerned that they may not be getting the attention they need.

“We’re very concerned that when those infections start to escalate, the system won’t be able to provide care,” she said.

Experts also share these concerns, who say the cramped spaces, few ideal safety procedures, low rates of vaccinated prisoners in prisons and a tendency for inmates to develop underlying medical conditions hiding can create a bad situation. Seth Prins, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told The Daily Beast: “This is kind of a container for an uncontrolled outbreak of coronavirus.

In one mail on TuesdayVincent Schiraldi, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections, said that while much of New York may not have been hardest hit by Omicron due to high vaccination rates, only 45 percent of inmates at Rikers have been vaccinated. Even just one dose of the vaccine.

Schiraldi added that earlier this month, the sentiment rate in prisons had stabilized around 1%. But by Monday it had increased to 9.5% and by Tuesday it was 17%.

According to data from Correctional Health Services, the city agency responsible for providing medical care in local prisons, as of Wednesday the rate had risen to 21.5 percent. In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for Corrective Health Services said they have not had any “laboratory-confirmed” cases of the Omicron variant, but they have noted an increase in cases. positive integration when this variant has spread locally. The CDC recently estimated the new variant accounts for about 73% of all cases nationwide.

Do you know something we should know about coronavirus and justice? Email Andrew.Boryga@thedailybeast.com or contact him securely via Signal at 978-464-1291.

The worrying increase shows that “the risk to those in our custody is at a crisis level,” Schiraldi wrote in her letter. “All indications are that our prison population faces the same or greater level of risk from COVID now as it did at the start of the pandemic.”

In his letter, Schiraldi said the DOC is doing all it can to limit the spread of the virus, including suspending group services and in-person visits. But he pleaded with public defenders to ask the courts to consider “every option available” to reduce the prison population — including seeking supervised release, seeing if cases can be resolved with an amended sentence term or a release order for those with underlying medical conditions.

In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, the Department of Corrections said it has continued to encourage detainees to get vaccinated. A spokesperson highlighted the message in weekly newsletters, posters, flyers, and a $100 credit and $100 grocery store gift card for someone of their choice in the community. , as well as tablet video messages from Dr. Anthony Fauci, Orange is the new black author Piper Kerman, and Mets legend Mookie Wilson.

Amid concerns about staffing shortages and access to health services, the statement pointed to early December data showing signs of “gradual improvement” in the use of force by staff. correctional officers and violence among prisoners. The statement also pointed to increased vaccination rates among correctional staff and said that, as of December 6, 83 percent of correctional staff had been vaccinated and 93 percent of non-uniform staff had been vaccinated. vaccination.

Fischer, a lawyer in Harlem, said Schiraldi’s letter was “astonishing” – but added that “in the end, the power is not in our hands to release people”, nodding at the overwhelming role played by the authorities. Prosecutors.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Queen’s District Attorney’s Office said it is currently reviewing the cases to see if the defendants can be released “without jeopardizing the safety of community or not.” That includes looking at advanced cases where defendants could be convicted or plead guilty leading to a transfer to state prison, time to serve or other alternatives, they added.

A spokesman for the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office told The Daily Beast that it has continuously assessed the possibility of releasing defendants throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so. In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said that, due to the recent spike in Rikers, they will “look closely at bailed cases, with the aim of The target recommends the release of certain individuals charged with misdemeanor or felony nonviolent crimes that do not pose a clear threat to public safety. ”

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Ilona Coleman, Bronx Defenders’ criminal defense director, says that while district attorneys play a big role in helping clients get rid of Rikers, judges also play an important role in this equation.

While Coleman appreciated Schiraldi’s letter earlier this week, she also wondered what else public defenders could do to convince the judges to release prisoners based on relevant arguments. related to COVID which she says has not been effective.

“Usually in our bail applications we are barred from making that argument by the judges,” she told The Daily Beast. “There is a real rebuttal on the part of the judiciary when it comes to the controversies surrounding the COVID-19 crisis at Rikers Island and what is happening there.”

Aside from asking for bail review in cases that have passed the initial processing stage, Coleman said, the only other option attorneys have is to forward habeas documents. In those cases, the argument was that a prisoner’s due process was violated due to the conditions of their detention and the Department’s deliberate indifference to their well-being.

But Coleman said those arguments often don’t work out before judges, and she’s “extremely doubtful” that will change — even after Schiraldi’s letter.

“Whatever happens inside the Rikers could very well make the situation worse for the whole of New York City.”

– Seth Prins

Omicron is not the first threat to threaten New York prisons this year.

Since the summer, Rikers Island and the Department of Corrections as a whole have had to deal with a massive shortage of editing staff, along with viral video Prisoners are attacked with the little help of guards and concerns from a federally appointed court supervisor for the safety of inmates. Access to medical care is also a lingering concern, according to Stoughton, a lawyer for Legal Aid.

In a September letter obtained by The Daily Beast, Ross MacDonald, medical director of Corrective Health Services — the city agency tasked with providing medical care in local prisons — wrote the Council. New York City and the Criminal Justice Commission requested “urgent assistance.”

In the letter, MacDonald urged the council to ask for outside help to “stabilize a situation that leads to death and threatens the health and well-being of all those who work and reside in city prisons.” .” MacDonald cited delays in processing new arrivals and overcrowded prisons, where people are held “for days on end”.

He also warned that the prison is “poorly positioned” to control COVID transmission: “In many cases, we are unable to transfer newly diagnosed patients to an isolation facility for more than 24 hours, and sometimes days after diagnosis”.

MacDonald said plans to deal with absentee corrections officers are a good start, but they are not enough to address the “urgency” of the situation. “Faster interventions are needed to reduce further injury, illness and loss of life, and this requires outside help. Sentencing reduction efforts, which are a proven public health response to COVID-19, have not been meaningfully pursued since 2020. Instead, the city is focused on getting the job done. handle the case through the court, a slow remedy also does not meet the urgency of this moment. ”

MacDonald did not respond to a request for comment.

Prins, the Columbia epidemiologist, said he believes the coming days and weeks could prove difficult for Rikers, as well as New York City, if the population is not reduced and safety procedures in place.

Even as the city and much of the country was spooked by the new variant, hopes that it might be less severe were bolstered in no small part by high local vaccination rates, many residents Vaccinated again. The situation behind bars is far more pressing, and Omicron’s high transmission rate – even among vaccinated people – could mean trouble for the rest of America’s largest city. .

After all, correctional officers do not live on the island.

“Anything that happens inside Rikers has the potential to make the situation worse for the whole of New York City,” he said.

https://www.thedailybeast.com/rikers-island-omicron-fears-are-spiraling-in-new-york?source=articles&via=rss Rikers Island Omicron’s fears are spiraling in New York

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