August 16, 2021
From AMW English


Just over one year into a global pandemic, New York City has seen over 30,000 deaths, and nearly 800,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19_._ Despite record-breaking creation and proliferation of vaccines, more than 350 New York City residents died from COVID-19 in seven days between March 10, 2021 and March 17, 2021.

While experts have made clear that none of us is beyond risk, the risk posed to people confined in city jails is alarming. As people in jail cannot practice social distancing or control their exposure to large groups, they are at the mercy of the facilities and institutions for all things other New Yorkers take for granted in our daily fight against COVID-19– including access to hand sanitizer, disinfectant products, and protective clothing. All of these realities are aggravated for those in facilities or institutions with dorm-style housing, meaning detainees and prisoners sleep in large, open-floor rooms on beds roughly 3-4ft across from each other.

These detainees and prisoners have no cells within which they can seek refuge. There is no ability to separate. They depend wholly upon the facility or institution to follow safety protocols, which are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and New York State guidance and most up-to-date science. Detainees and prisoners eat meals in very close proximity to each other– mere inches apart, as there’s no restriction on capacity and no ability to social distance.

An example is a New York City facility named Vernon C. Baine Center or “The Boat,” which is unique among NYC jails. It is a windowless, five-story floating barge that was supposed to be a temporary facility but has been in continuous use for nearly thirty years. The facility has sixteen dorms, close to 166 cells, and holds 906 inmates. Each dorm has 50 beds. The detainees share a bathroom (toilets, sink, and showers). Detainees with high risks– meaning those with underlying health conditions, comorbidities, and compromised immune systems– are not segregated, which is among DOC’s featured policies (see “DOC Action Plan.”).

If a detainee tests positive, he or she is removed and those unfortunate enough to be in dorms are quarantined together for 15 days, which has been referred to as “cohort quarantining” (a practice discouraged by the CDC). From July 13, 2021 through July 16, 2021, the Board of Corrections has shown Vernon C. Baine Center between 87%-96% max capacity, which seriously undermines the CDC’s safety protocol of 50%– as is also supposed to be a part of the DOC’s own COVID-19 policy (see New York City jails, as of March 24, 2021, held more than 5,600 people in its jails (https/www/.gov/assetsbox). Dr. Robert Cohen, a member of the city’s Board of Corrections, said “Every week, the number of people in jail increases. And in most weeks, the number of people who have been exposed to COVID-19 within the jail increases as well.” (See NY Times March 10th 2021, “City Jails are Crowded Again, Stoking COVID-19 Fears.”)

In a lawsuit against city jails, jail guards said they were “forced to work without masks, without disinfectant for [their] hands, and to work around staff and inmates who were not required to– and, in some instances, were prohibited from– wearing masks,” and they were “forced to work around inmates that the department is purposefully misdiagnosing as asymptomatic only to later categorize such inmates and their housing areas as infected with COVID-19.” (Kinlock vs. City of New York.) A similar suit was brought by 23 city jail workers, all alleging that the city has flouted CDC guidance (Williams et. al. vs. City of New York). As of March 10, 2021, there are 546 current detainees with confirmed COVID-19 _and another 632 categorized as “likely exposed but asymptomatic.”

Three people have died of COVID-19 in DOC custody. However, similar to what has been reported about the miscounting of deaths in nursing homes, DOC does not count the many many deaths that resulted from detainees contracting COVID-19 in custody and then dying of that condition after their release or transfer to hospitals (See “NYC Jail related COVID-19 Fatalities at least double official three who died in custody”).  The virus has proven particularly deadly to individuals over 40 years old and those with underlying health conditions that diminish the immune system or relate to heart, lung, kidney, and liver function. Even when not fatal, COVID-19 can cause severe damage to lung tissue, sometimes leading to a permanent loss of respiratory capacity, and can cause long term damage to tissues in other vital organs, including the heart, liver, and kidneys._

Inmates that have been locked up longer than a month or two have watched with bated breath as detainees come and go around them, some removed for positive COVID-19. DOC’s failure to protect its detainees and prisoners by reasonably following through on their own policies identified as necessary to protect its detainees and prisoners in New York state, especially New York City, amounts to a disregard for the substantial risks posed by the current conditions. For city detainees that have not been convicted of any crime, society should not tolerate the risk of death by a virus (COVID-19) for someone awaiting trial and thus innocent until proven guilty of any offense. For sentenced inmates, no sentence should ever include the risk of death by a virus (COVID-19).

Detainees and inmates are in constant fear, as every cough, sneeze or laugh ring like a death knell to especially those with serious illness already or those at and over the age of 40 years old. These detainees and inmates should be able to go home and be with their loved ones, not be waiting to become seriously ill and/or die. Remembering those who have died in jails and prisons who have lost their lives to this terrible virus. And a prayer for those who are still being detained and held in jails and prisons, to make it home safely, stay strong!

Written by: Michael J. Lee

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Note: Photo is from uprising at St. Louis jail last April.