‘A ticking time bomb’: City jails are crowded again, stoking COVID fears


By Troy Closson and Jonah E. Bromwich


New York City’s jails were under such threat from the coronavirus last spring that city officials moved swiftly to let hundreds of people out of the crowded, airless, old buildings. The effort shrank the jail population to its lowest point in more than half a century.


But it did not last. A year later, jails are more crowded than they were when the pandemic began. And there has been an increase in infections in recent months that could pose a public health risk even beyond the jail walls.


There are now more than 5,500 people in the city’s jails, slightly more than were detained last March. About three quarters of the people being held have not been convicted. Many are awaiting trial much longer than usual, as the court system continues to operate at a near standstill during the pandemic.


In lawsuits, prisoners and guards alike have called the living conditions inside unsanitary and dangerous. Incarcerated people who were recently held at Rikers Island say social distancing has again become impossible in some jail units and that soap, sanitation wipes and disinfectants are scarce or unavailable. Many correctional officers, they say, still do not regularly wear face coverings.


“They haven’t done anything to keep us safe,” said Prakash Churaman, 21, who was released on bail from Rikers Island on Jan. 19. “Imagine how much bacteria, how much germs there is. It’s basically like we weren’t even human.”


Doctors said they feared the uptick of the virus in recent months could set the stage for another major outbreak inside.


“The more people in housing areas, the quicker it will spread,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, a member of the city’s Board of Correction, a watchdog agency that monitors jails. “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 jails increases as well.”


Those behind bars are at high risk for contracting and spreading the virus, and correctional facilities have been home to some of the largest outbreaks nationally. Often, those outbreaks have spread into the community at large, as people shuttle in and out of detention. Few of those being detained in New York have been offered vaccines.


“When we see the numbers start to rise as they have, it’s a ticking time bomb,” said Seth Prins, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. “Inevitably that will spread back into the communities where folks are returning to.”


Data kept by Correctional Health Services, which oversees care in jails, shows that infections and exposures in the jails crept up during January and February to their highest levels since last spring. A Department of Correction spokesman, in a statement, noted that the average test positivity rate in the jails was lower than in the city at large, although experts warn that the virus’s prevalence in jails can be hard to track.


The Department of Correction said there were not widespread or systemic shortages of soap or other sanitary materials, and that staff members are subject to discipline for not wearing masks. The department also pointed to the ruling in a lawsuit filed by E.E. Keenan, a lawyer representing current and recent detainees at Rikers, in which a judge declined to order city jails to improve their hygiene regimens.


A spokesman for the city’s law department, Nick Paolucci, said the claims in the jails staff members’ suit were unsubstantiated.


Still, public defenders and civil liberties groups have urged a renewed effort to release people from jails.


In the earliest months of the pandemic, public defenders and local officials, led by Mayor Bill de Blasio, pushed for city prosecutors and state courts to release the most vulnerable populations from behind bars and introduced an early release program for people being held on a jail sentence of one year or less.


By late April, after hundreds were released, the total population dropped below 3,900.


But none of the measures that the city took to release people were implemented on a continuing basis and the jails population began to grow anew in the summer.


The population rose as rollbacks to the state’s bail-reform law went into effect in July, changes that data from the Center for Court Innovation, a criminal justice nonprofit, shows contributed to some of the initial rise.


Once people are in jail, they are at the mercy of a court system operating in slow motion.

People are spending an average of almost three months more in jail than they did before the pandemic, city data shows.


At least 700 people are jailed whose cases would probably have been resolved if not for the pandemic, according to the city. An additional 285 who otherwise would have been discharged to state prison to serve sentences are stuck in city jails, as those transfers are currently suspended, the Department of Correction said.


Shawn Dunn, who was released from Rikers Island on Feb. 9 after about four months inside for several minor parole violations, said as the facility’s population rose in the winter, more than 40 people were often living in the same housing dormitory unit as he was.


Their beds were laid out 24 to 36 inches apart, he said, and the tables where he ate meals became increasingly congested. He rarely saw those spaces cleaned or disinfected by staff.


Rigodis Appling, a Manhattan public defender, said that because her clients in jails experienced no relief from the pandemic — no time at which they were able to feel fully safe from infection — they were in a state of unrelenting anxiety.


“You go to sleep with the mask, you wake up with the mask and you live with this constant fear,” she said.