Growing NYC jail population raises inmates’ coronavirus fears

By: 
CHELSIA ROSE MARCIUS and STEPHEN REX BROWN

Most inmates at Rikers Island are being held in jails over 50% capacity despite continued pressure on jail leaders to keep housing areas half-full, stats and court papers show.

The Correction Department’s overcrowding issue, which was first highlighted by the Daily News in November, was cited in new court papers filed by eight inmates slamming the agency for inadequate measures to combat COVID-19.

“Overpopulation at Rikers is contributing to the DOC’s failure to ensure social distancing,” the eight inmates’ attorney, E.E. Keenan, writes in papers filed Friday in Manhattan Federal Court seeking an emergency order imposing new COVID measures.

The city’s Board of Correction — a watchdog agency tasked with keeping tabs on the jails — has continued to raise concerns about overcrowding, noting in a Jan. 12 meeting that 70% of the jail population systemwide is still housed in units above 50% capacity.

Correction Department Chief of Department Hazel Jennings testified at a September state Senate hearing the agency “will continue to make sure that we do not have the housing capacity at each housing area over 50% so that we can achieve the social distancing.”

That commitment proved tough to keep.

The Correction Department has 1,400 fewer uniformed staffers than during January of last year, Commissioner Cynthia Brann told the Board of Correction.

“Our significant resource reduction is impacting how we house people,” she said at the Jan. 12 board meeting. “So when [the board asks] the question, are we committed to a 50% closing capacity, I cannot commit to that.”

There are 87 inmates currently suffering from coronavirus out of a total jail population of 5,262, according to the most recent data available. The number of positive cases has steadily increased since November, according to the court filing. Inmates routinely run out of hand soap, jail staff fails to properly wear face masks and jails still aren’t adequately cleaned, the filing argues.

“Why wait for more Rikers detainees to perish or develop more serious health conditions that will likely follow them for the rest of their lives? Easy solutions exist and are widely used nationwide,” Keenan wrote.