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Rikers Island Prisoners Helped with Preparations to Bury the Coronavirus Dead

Prisoners jailed with a conviction at New York’s Rikers Island were offered $6 an hour to dig mass graves at Hart Island, where more than 1 million mostly indigent city residents are already buried. In a city with decreasing space to bury the dead, Hart Island in the northeast Bronx is in high demand during the coronavirus pandemic. Around 25 bodies are normally buried there per week, but that number had climbed to about 125 by early April.

Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, confirmed the offer of $6 an hour for prisoners to The Intercept on March 31. He said it was not “COVID-specific,” but the timing and the fact that the offer included provision of personal protection gear such as face masks left clear it was directly related to the pandemic. So did the pay rate, which was exorbitant by the paltry standard of prison labor in general.

New York City is a global center of the coronavirus pandemic. As of April 16, more than 12,000 city residents had died from COVID-19.

Prisoners have historically maintained Hart Island, the city’s public cemetery. In 2018, they were paid 50 cents per hour. Instead of plots, the dead are buried in trenches with more than 100 others.

On April 6, de Blasio told The New York Times that local morgues still had the capacity to accommodate the dead but three days later, news reports revealed that a giant trench was being dug on Hart Island. Rikers prisoners, it was later reported by The Washington Post, had been helping with the work until April 3. City contractors then took over after the negative publicity arising from news accounts about prisoners being used to do the work.

Meanwhile, the situation for prisoners at Rikers was dire. In March, its own chief physician, Ross MacDonald, warned that a “storm is coming” and urged the freeing of vulnerable prisoners. “We have told you who is at risk,” he tweeted. “Please let as many out as you possibly can.”

“City and state officials have badly mishandled the response to the pandemic at the jail,” The Intercept reported.

By April 5, TIME reported that 273 detainees, 321 corrections personnel, and 53 health professionals in the city’s jail system had tested positive for coronavirus, and four corrections officers had died.

The first Rikers prisoner to succumb to COVID-19 was Michael Tyson, who died April 5 at Bellevue Hospital while awaiting a hearing on a non-criminal parole violation. “Tyson’s name was among the 100 detainees from the Bronx held on parole violations for whom the Legal Aid Society has been seeking immediate release, via a lawsuit filed in Bronx Supreme Court on April 3,” reported.

The 53-year-old Tyson was named among “the highest risk group” because of unspecified underlying health issues and his age. Media reports said he was locked up Feb. 28 and hospitalized March 26. On April 12, a second prisoner died of COVID-19, 63-year-old Walter Ance.

To combat the spread of the virus, the board of correction had recommended the release of 2,000 prisoners, including parole violators, individuals over 50, medically at risk and those serving short sentences, reports on video.  But the releases are not happening quickly enough. “Think of the jails as the world’s worst cruise ship,” said Rachael Bedard, director of the geriatrics and complex care service for Correctional Health Services, the city agency that provides healthcare in the New York City jail system.

Governor Andrew Cuomo had announced plans to release those on non-criminal technical parole violations such as Tyson, but the decision came too late.

Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society, told the press: “This tragedy would have been entirely avoidable if only Governor Cuomo had directed [the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS)] to act decisively from the outset of this epidemic to release incarcerated New Yorkers who, like Mr. Tyson, were especially vulnerable to the virus.”

The death came on the heels of Rikers being dubbed a “public health disaster.” Soap and sanitizers were reported in short supply even as the DOC said it was increasing both. As with other prisons, social distancing is all but impossible. “[B]eds in jailhouse dorms are 18 to 24 inches apart,” according to The Intercept.

Prisoners “share bathrooms and showers and cafeterias, cramped cells and telephones and pullup bars, allowing the virus to easily spread from person to person. Inmates have described feeling trapped, unable to protect themselves without adequate cleaning supplies, soap, masks or gloves, while guards and staff are equally ‘terrified,’” The Washington Post reported.

Some prisoners over age 70 who are particularly high-risk for COVID-19 were being released, Business Insider reported. The jail population declined to about 4,300 people, a drop of 1,200 in 18 days.

Still, the jail is overcrowded. “New York City’s jails have now emerged as the epicenter in the United States for COVID-19 with an infection rate seven times higher than that of the rest of the city, higher than New York State and higher than the rest of the country writ large,” said Corey Stoughton, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s special litigation unit, calling it “unconscionable that those in power continue to ignore this reality.” 




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