Letter from Board of Correction re: NYC Jails and COVID-19, 2020
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Jacqueline Sherman, Interim Chair Stanley Richards, Vice-Chair Robert L. Cohen, M.D. Felipe Franco Jennifer Jones Austin James Perrino Michael J. Regan Steven M. Safyer, M.D. Margaret Egan Executive Director BOARD OF CORRECTION CITY OF NEW YORK 1 CENTRE STREET, RM 2213 NEW YORK, NY 10007 212 669-7900 (Office) 212 669-7980 (Fax) March 21, 2020 Darcel Clark Bronx District Attorney Eric Gonzalez Brooklyn District Attorney Melinda Katz Queens District Attorney Michael McMahon Staten Island District Attorney Cyrus Vance Manhattan District Attorney Janet DiFiore Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and of the State of New York Anthony Annucci Acting Commissioner, NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Cynthia Brann Commissioner, NYC Department of Correction VIA EMAIL Dear New York City’s Criminal Justice Leaders: The New York City jails are facing a crisis as COVID-19 continues its march through the City. We write to urge you to act to (1) immediately remove from jail all people at high risk of dying of COVID-19 infection and (2) rapidly decrease the jail population. Staff of the Department of Correction (DOC) and Correctional Health Services (CHS) are doing heroic work to keep people in custody and staff safe and healthy. The Board of Correction, the independent oversight agency for the City’s jails, has closely monitored Rikers Island and the borough jails for over sixty years. From this experience, we know that DOC’s and CHS’s best efforts will not be enough to prevent viral transmission in the jails. Their work must be supplemented by bold and urgent action from the City’s District Attorneys, New York State judges, New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), and DOC’s utilization of its executive release authority. Fewer people in the jails will save lives and minimize transmission among people in custody as well as staff. Failure to drastically reduce the jail population threatens to overwhelm the City jails’ healthcare system as well its basic operations. 1 Over the past six days, we have learned that at least twelve DOC employees, five CHS employees, and twenty-one people in custody have tested positive for the virus. There are more than 58 individuals currently being monitored in the contagious disease and quarantine units (up from 26 people on March 17). It is likely these people have been in hundreds of housing areas and common areas over recent weeks and have been in close contact with many other people in custody and staff. Given the nature of jails (e.g. dense housing areas and structural barriers to social distancing, hygiene, and sanitation), the number of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 is certain to rise exponentially. The best path forward to protecting the community of people housed and working in the jails is to rapidly decrease the number of people housed and working in them. Mayor de Blasio announced on March 19 that the NYPD and Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) had identified 40 people for release from custody, pending approval of the District Attorneys’ Offices and the courts. This number is far from sufficient to protect against the rapid spread of coronavirus in the jails. We urge you to follow your colleagues in Los Angeles County (CA), San Francisco (CA), Cook County (IL), Autauga County (AL), Augusta County (VA), Allegheny County (PA), Hamilton County (OH), Harris County (TX), Travis County (TX), and Cuyahoga County (OH), and take action now to release people from City jails. As further detailed below, this immediate reduction should prioritize the release of people who are at higher risk from infection such as those over 50 or with underlying health conditions. Additionally, you must safely release other people in jail to decrease the overall population; this process should begin with people detained for administrative reasons (including failure to appear and parole violations) and people serving “City Sentences” (sentences of one year or less). The process should continue to identify all other people who can be released. DOC and CHS should provide discharge planning to all people you release, including COVID screening, connection to health and mental health services, and support with housing, as necessary. People over 50 years old The morbidity rates for COVID-19 accelerate with age, with older people being the least likely to recover from complications of the virus. There are currently 906 people in DOC custody who are over age 50. Older adults in custody have an average of between three and four medical diagnoses each, and each of them takes between six and seven medications. Of the 906 older adults in custody today, 189 are being detained on technical parole violations. Another 74 older adults are City-Sentenced, serving one year or less for low-level offenses. People with underlying health conditions People with underlying health conditions, including lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or a weakened immune system, are especially at risk of dying from COVID-19. As of today, there are 62 people in the infirmary at North Infirmary Command on Rikers Island. They are housed there because they require a higher level of medical care. Twelve of them are technical parole violators and six are CitySentenced. In addition, there are eight women currently in the infirmary at the Rose M. Singer Center, three of whom are in custody on technical parole violations. 2 People detained for administrative reasons There are currently 666 people in custody being held solely for a technical violation of parole, including failure to make curfew, missing a meeting with a parole officer, or testing positive for drugs. There are an additional 811 people detained on an open case and a technical parole violation who also should be reviewed for immediate release. People serving city sentences There are currently 551 people in DOC custody who are serving a City Sentence of under one year for low-level offenses. The Mayor must use his executive powers to release these people. New York must replicate the bold and urgent action it has taken in other areas to stem the tide of COVID-19 in the jails. The Board strongly urges you to take urgent action today to drastically reduce the NYC jail population using the guidelines above. Sincerely, Jacqueline Sherman Interim Chair 3