Top official says New York City coronavirus jail outbreak is a crisis, dozens infected

The novel coronavirus has reportedly spread to New York City's Rikers Island jail complex and nearby facilities, with at least 38 people contracting the disease and dozens more exposed to it. 

Jacqueline Sherman, the Board of Correction's interim chairwoman, disclosed the infections in a letter to New York’s criminal justice leaders that raised alarms about a serious health crisis in the city's jail system, according to The Associated Press

She said that board members learned in the last week that 21 people in custody at Rikers and city jails tested positive for COVID-19. She said 12 Department of Correction employees and five Correctional Health Services workers had also contracted the virus, adding that at least 58 people were currently being monitored in contagious disease and quarantine units at the facilities. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“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,” Sherman said, urging city leaders to “rapidly decrease the number of people housed and working in them” as a precautionary measure. 

The letter was sent to the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction, its acting commissioner, the chief judge of the court of appeals, and New York’s district attorney.

New York's Department of Correction said in a statement to The Hill that that 19 inmates and 12 staff members had tested positive for the virus. The reason for the discrepancy on the number of infected inmates is unclear.

"The health and well-being of our personnel and people in custody is our top priority," the department said, adding that its working to identify individuals who had close contact with its employees that have contracted the virus. 

Legal groups and other advocates have called for states and the federal government to quickly impose measures to protect the prison population amid the COVID-19 outbreak, warning that inmates living in crowded conditions could be especially susceptible to the disease. 

New York's Board of Correction, an independent oversight committee for the jail system, last week called for a rapid decrease in the prison population and a limit on new admissions to combat the outbreak. The American Civil Liberties Union has sent letters to officials at all levels of the justice system asking them to consider releasing inmates who are considered vulnerable due to their age or underlying health conditions.

Reports have surfaced in recent weeks that prison officers and staff in states including California and Michigan have tested positive for the virus. Eighteen inmates in a Wisconsin prison were quarantined last week after a facility doctor tested positive for the virus. 

Sherman reportedly said in her letter that people who are most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 should be considered for early release. 

UPDATED 12:15 p.m.