The first jail inmate to test positive for COVID-19 at Rikers Island, Michael Tyson, died on Sunday. According to multiple people familiar with Tyson’s case, he contracted and died from the disease while awaiting a hearing on a parole violation.
Tyson was just 53 years old, reports The New York Times, and had been detained at the infamous New York City jail since Feb. 28. Rebecca Kavanagh, a well-known criminal defense attorney and legal analyst, noted on Twitter that a technical violation of parole would mean Tyson wasn’t at the jail for committing a crime, but for an infraction like missing a meeting, violating curfew, or testing positive for marijuana.
It’s unclear what Tyson did to violate his parole, but whatever the technical violation was, it was essentially a death sentence.
For months, public health experts and civil liberties groups have been sounding the alarm on the unique vulnerabilities those incarcerated have to contracting the coronavirus.
“We cannot change the fundamental nature of jail,” Ross MacDonald, chief physician of New York City’s jail system, wrote on Twitter last month.
“We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom,” he continued. “Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day.”
According to The City, Tyson was among 100 detainees from the Bronx that the Legal Aid Society, a civil liberties advocacy group that provides legal aid to those who can’t afford it, had sought immediate release for. All 100 of Legal Aid’s clients were being held on parole violations.
Late last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) would start releasing low-level technical parole violators from jail—a number that includes 400 detainees in New York City alone, reports The City.
So far, 900 people in city jails have been released, but the process isn’t a speedy one: each case must be reviewed by prosecutors and state prison officials before a decision is made about a release. This means there are still people in jails throughout New York for parole violations, misdemeanor drug possession charges and other petty crimes—like not paying fares on New York City’s subways.
The longer they stay in jail, the greater likelihood they’ll contract the coronavirus. The Times, citing DOCCS numbers, reports that as of Sunday, 273 inmates, 321 correction staff, and 53 health workers have tested positive for the virus. Another 2,500 of the department’s uniformed officers and 200 civilians working in New York’s jails and prisons are out sick, reports The City.
Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at Legal Aid, told The City Tyson’s death would have been “entirely avoidable if only Governor Cuomo had directed DOCCS to act decisively from the outset of this epidemic to release incarcerated New Yorkers who were uniquely vulnerable to the virus.”