“Release as many vulnerable people as possible”

New York City is home to it’s own archipelago of three federal jails, three borough jails, eight functioning jails on Rikers Island, two locked prison wards, and lockup facilities in each of seven state and federal criminal courthouses in the five boroughs. The best estimate is that there are upwards of 10,000 men and women incarcerated in the City of New York on any given day. Other than the court facilities, these jails are on lockdown: no visits, limited movement within the facilities. Inmates are cut off from their families, their lawyers, social workers, work and educational programs, and everything else that provides hope in a dark time.

And they are starting to get sick.

As the New York City Bar Association and many other groups have said, it is time to let people out. Our nation’s four-decade experiment with mass incarceration has failed. The only way to make the jails safe is to dramatically reduce the density. Public health and public safety require it. Many more people will die if the jails remain full.

Yet in the face of this powder-keg situation, some law enforcement officials have resolved to keep the prisons densely populated. Rather than admit they consider security concerns more pressing than public health concerns – even as the novel coronavirus has proven itself a far more deadly killer than any current inmate – New York prosecutors cling to the delusion that people can be safely held in the close confines of the local lockups. In a letter to Mayor De Blasio released yesterday, the six top New York City prosecutors opposed release of inmates on public health grounds. They chastised the mayor for releasing a handful of inmates already, but noted that they agreed to release a handful more. Shockingly, the district attorneys wrote that “the city’s jail system is capable of appropriately managing the health needs of the remaining inmates.” (The letter was reported on in the New York Post and an unauthenticated version, available here, circulated on Twitter; perhaps tellingly, it does not appear on the DAs’ websites).

Federal prosecutors, the United States attorneys for the Eastern District of New York and the Southern District of New York, have taken a similarly misguided approach. They continue mass arrests well into the crisis. They tell judges, incorrectly, that bail should be denied because the Bureau of Prisons is capable of preventing the spread of COVID-19 illness at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. Their callousness prompted a normally sober defense lawyer to dub them “sociopaths” for continuing to operate business as usual – an apt, if uncourtly, epithet for people more interested in winning cases than preventing illness. Ever since a guard smuggled a gun into the MCC, that facility has been in unmitigated crisis. Inmates have been denied basic hygiene, attorney visits, social visits, and hot food. The place was a breeding ground for disease just before the virus hit. All three federal jails have coronavirus cases (the third is privately run by the GEO Group, which makes money off of all this). One of our clients yesterday described a young man on his unit at the MCC coughing, wheezing and screaming for medical help that does not come.

The first death from COVID-19 of a federal inmate was reported in Louisiana over the weekend. His name was Patrick Jones. He was in prison for a nonviolent drug crime.

In response to the District Attorneys’ letter, Dr. Ross MacDonald, the chief medical officer at Rikers, courageously responded in a series of tweets on Twitter. He wrote:

As the Chief Physician of Rikers Island, I prefer to do my work anonymously, but in these extraordinary times, I must comment on this letter from the district attorneys of New York. The only part of the letter I can speak directly to is their failure to appreciate the public health disaster unfolding before our eyes. They suggest that the city: “Immediately reassure the public and the courts that the city’s jail system is capable of appropriately managing the health needs of the remaining inmates, in a manner consistent with recent guidance from the CDC for managing COVID-19 in correctional and detention facilities.” I can assure you we were following the CDC guidelines before they were issued. We could have written them ourselves. In essence we did, as they were wholly consistent with our plans as this virus approached. I can also assure you that. 1. New York City has the best jail health workforce in the nation 2. We have spent years recruiting and retaining the most talented, mission driven health professionals in the field. 3. We will give our all through every brutal day of this crisis. Here’s the important part: infections in our jails are growing quickly despite these efforts. Today there are close to 200 confirmed cases when just 12 days ago we had our first. In that space of time we have moved mountains to protect our patients. This is not a generational public health crisis, rather it is a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen. It is possible that our efforts will stem this growth, but as a physician I must tell you it is unlikely. I cannot reassure you of something you only wish to be true. I can reassure my patients that I will get them the best possible care, but we expect that 20% of those infected will need our overburdened hospitals and 5% will need ventilators that many other citizens will also need. I can’t presume to tell you how to do your job, but neither should you presume to be experts in correctional health or corrections. I am raising this alarm for a reason. I simply ask that in this time of crisis the focus remain on releasing as many vulnerable people as possible.

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