‘A crisis level’: Rikers COVID positivity skyrockets, DOC head urges inmate release

Rikers Island jail complex

Rikers Island jail complex

NEW YORK – The COVID-19 rate at Rikers Island has skyrocketed, prompting the head of the Department of Correction to ask for help from legal aid groups to get more inmates released.

Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said the COVID positive rate at the city’s jails had been “consistently hovering at approximately 1%” until 10 days ago. On Monday, the positivity rate jumped to 17%, doubling from the 9.5% positivity rate recorded the day before.

“The combination of these data indicates that the risks to the human beings in our custody are at a crisis level. As you are aware, considerable efforts were made at the beginning of the pandemic to reduce the jail population immediately in order to avert a major humanitarian catastrophe. All indications suggest that our jail population faces an equal or greater level of risk from COVID now as it did at the start of the pandemic,” Schiraldi said in the letter.

In the letter, the commissioner also noted that only 45% of the incarcerated population has received one dose of the vaccine, and only 38% are fully vaccinated.

“I implore you to ask the courts to similarly consider every available option to reduce the number of individuals in our jail,” he said.

Public defender organizations shared Schiraldi’s letter Wednesday, further calling for the immediate release of incarcerated people and the halt of new admissions to fight the spread of the omicron variant.

“The virus is spreading like wildfire throughout Rikers Island and other DOC facilities, exacerbating an ongoing humanitarian crisis that has already taken the lives of sixteen people this year and forced countless others to endure life-threatening conditions while in custody,” they said in a statement. 

President of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association Benny Boscio Jr., however, called out Schiraldi’s “mishandling” of the recent surge.

“For the past two months, we have said that Commissioner Schiraldi was being disingenuous with the public over his exclusive focus on imposing a vaccine mandate on our officers while refusing to enforce a vaccine mandate for the inmates in our custody and for the visitors coming to see them every day. He didn’t even require visitors to test negative while our officers were getting tested weekly. Now the Commissioner is concerned that only 38% of the inmates are fully vaccinated and the COVID positivity rate in our jails is now 17%. By allowing visitors to come into our jails without having to show proof of vaccination and without mandating the inmates be vaccinated, Commissioner Schiraldi has once again put thousands of lives in jeopardy. Our workforce is approximately 85% vaccinated and it was COBA who forced the DOC to finally shutdown inmate visits. The Commissioner’s negligence is going to leave our jails on the potential brink of another catastrophe,” he said in a statement. 

New York City has seen a surge in COVID cases, reporting nearly 11,000 new positive cases as of Wednesday morning, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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