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New York Judge Orders Release of 18 Rikers Island Detainees Due to COVID-19 Risk

On April 6, 2020, New York Supreme Court Judge Mark Dwyer ordered the release of 18 pre-trial detainees held at Rikers Island in response to a lawsuit brought by attorneys Lauren Gottesman and Mary Lynne Werlwas of the Legal Aid Society, and Robert Briere. The lawyers had sought the release of 32 detainees they said were at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

In considering the case, the Court relied upon traditional due process black letter law. Citing among other cases Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493, 508-09 (2011), Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832-33 (1994), and Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), the Court asserted that jail officials are required to “provide effective medical care for inmates.” While these cases concerned convicted prisoners, the Court stated that the “Due Process protections of the 5th and 14th Amendments and … the New York Constitution provide comparable protections to pretrial inmates.”

The Court held that the COVID-19 pandemic posed “a deadly threat to inmates,” and its presence at the prison equates to an “unsafe, life-threatening condition” endangering detainees’ “reasonable safety.” Based on this, “and the absence of a viable alternative, a court has no choice but to order release.”

While defendants asserted that they had taken reasonable care to mitigate the risk posed by COVID-19 – including providing soap and cleaning supplies and urging prisoners to engage in social distancing – the Court disagreed. It stated that “communicable diseases could not ask for a better breeding ground than a crowded prison.”

The Court also discussed risks to urban jails like Rikers, stating prisoners are “constantly exposed to additional potential sources of contagion.” It detailed the trend of COVID-19 infections at Rikers. On March 20, only one prisoner had tested positive for the virus. The following day 21 inmates and 17 staff “were reported ill from the virus, and one member of the staff was dead.” On April 2, 231 prisoners and 223 staff were sick.

In further support of the plaintiffs’ claims, the Court discussed a March 21 New York Board of Correction advisory letter to judges and prosecutors “calling for the release of prisoners over 50 years old who have conditions placing them at high risk if they contract COVID-19.”

“Under the best of circumstances, there are far better places to be than Rikers Island. And these are not the best of circumstances,” said the Court.

Turning to the facts, the Court stated, “Certainly no American prison is equipped to deal with a health crisis of the severity of this one.” The Court reasoned that due process “does not excuse prison officials who mean well, but have no effective way to protect inmates from potentially fatal epidemics.”

“Reasonable care to mitigate must include an effort to employ an effective ameliorative measure,” Judge Dwyer said. “The escalating numbers of the infected show that what Rikers has done is not remotely effective … For some of [the plaintiffs], only release can offer protection.”

The Court ordered the release of 18 plaintiffs and denied release to others whose health conditions it said did not put them at high-risk of contracting COVID-19. Some other plaintiffs had already been released on consent or bail.

Judge Dwyer stated that he did not believe that “release can be denied even to those charged with violent crimes if they are still at substantial risk of death or other serious physical injury.” Reasoning these inmates could have additional restrictions placed on them even in the pre-trial context, he held that “these prisoners cannot be punished with the unnecessary exposure to a highly communicable, and for them potentially deadly, disease.”

Since the ruling, hundreds of prisoners have been released from Rikers and other New York City jails.

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Related legal case

People ex rel. Stoughton v. Brann