On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio authorized the release of 40 of the city’s inmates who were convicted of minor, nonviolent offenses in order to lessen the burden on NYC prisons and jails affected by the coronavirus outbreak. After the city’s Board of Corrections declared in a letter (pdf) to NYC’s criminal justice leaders that that number was “far from sufficient to protect against the rapid spread of coronavirus in the jails,” the mayor released 23 more inmates. As it turns out, that number still is not nearly high enough.
According to the Washington Post, at least 38 people who are either inmates or employees of the city’s correctional facilities have tested positive for coronavirus, and the number of inmates being monitored in quarantine has gone from 26 to 56 in less than a week. That number is expected to increase exponentially, according to the letter from the Board of Corrections.
The letter also stated that 551 people are serving “city sentences” of less than a year for minor offenses and another 666 are serving time for petty parole or probation violation, such as breaking curfew, failing a drug test or missing a check-in with a parole officer. With jails suffering from hundreds of inmates being in close quarters, a shortage of soap and hand sanitizer and a struggle to maintain sufficient healthcare for inmates, the board is urging de Blasio to authorize a mass release of inmates, especially including those 50 years and over who pose no discernible threat to the general public.
Ross MacDonald, the chief physician for Rikers Island, took to Twitter on Wednesday to emphasize the urgent need to move forward with these releases, writing: “We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom. Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day.”
“A storm is coming,” MacDonald continued. “We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”
Brooklyn public defender Scott Hechinger tweeted on Saturday that one of his clients, an asthmatic father of a 1-year-old, is currently jailed in Rikers Island, which is overly crowded as it is, for failing to report a change-of-address to his parole officer. Hechinger said his client was jailed just before the virus began to spread throughout the U.S.
Hechinger also told the Washington Post via email that “Every single person now trapped on Rikers and other jails throughout New York State, serving short sentences for non-violent and other low-level offenses, will be released shortly anyway.” Hechinger continued asking, “Why risk turning a couple of months for low-level drug possession or petty theft into a death sentence?”
The requests from the city’s corrections officials and other advocates come after other states dealing with the same issues have released hundreds of nonviolent inmates.
From Washington Post:
The pleas for leniency heard in New York have echoed across the country as coronavirus has spread to jails and prisons. Counties across California have released hundreds of people to thin jail populations in the state and on Sunday officials confirmed the first state prisoner had tested positive for the virus. Officials in Maine, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas have also begun releasing inmates in recent days to reduce the impact of coronavirus.
New York State instituted a new bail reform policy in January ruling that most citizens charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies won’t be jailed before they go to trial. The new policy was controversial at the time it was put in place, but now it may be the one saving grace for overburdened NYC correction facilities.
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez recently announced that his prosecutors would be using their discretion to decline “low-level offenses that don’t jeopardize public safety.”
Hopefully, these measures will help the situation.