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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

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

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

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.


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.


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.

Jacqueline Sherman
Interim Chair