First Coronavirus Case At Rikers, Calls Rise To Release Prisoners

WCBS 880 Newsroom
March 18, 2020 - 1:50 pm
Prison bars

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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- New York City is exploring ways to reduce the prison population at Rikers Island and other city jails after the death of a corrections department investigator from coronavirus.

The board that oversees city jails called for the immediate release of all high-risk inmates after an investigator assigned to the jail system died over the weekend. The 56-year-old man was said to have a pre-existing health condition and only limited contact with inmates. The city's jail system has about 8,000 inmates.

Dr. Bob Cohen, the former director of the Montefiore Rikers Island Health Services, told WCBS 880's Marla Diamond that the prison population should be significantly reduced.

"This will slow the spread of coronavirus within the jails and mitigate the spread of virus from inside to outside." Cohen said. "This will flatten the curve and this will save lives." 

Cohen called for state and local leaders to "implement expanded bail reform. Don't send anyone eligible for bail to jail, and release everyone inside who is eligible for bail." 

In a virtual press conference, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Council Member Brad Lander called for a halt in "broken window" arrests, or non-violent victimless offenses, and for the release of most inmates over the age of 50.

Mayor Bill de Blasio says corrections officials are looking at releasing low level offenders on a case-by-case basis.

Even those doing hard time in federal prison are asking for a get-out-of-jail card. They include 81-year-old Bernie Madoff and President Donald Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen, who is serving a three year sentence for tax evasion and campaign finance violations.

While widespread outbreaks of coronavirus behind bars have yet to happen, the frenzy of legal activity underscores a crude reality that's only beginning to sink in: America's nearly 7,000 jails, prisons and correction facilities are an ideal breeding ground for the virus, as dangerous as nursing homes and cruise ships but far less sanitary.

Stepped-up cleanings and a temporary halt to visitations at many lockups across the country in the midst of the crisis can't make up for the fact that ventilation behind bars is often poor, inmates sleep in close quarters and share a small number of bathrooms.

"Simply put, it's impossible to do social distancing," said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.

As of Wednesday, two federal Bureau of Prisons staff members have tested positive for coronavirus, a person familiar with the matter told the AP. One of the staffers works in a correctional facility and the other works in an office, but there were still no confirmed cases among any of the 175,000 inmates in the BOP system, the person said. The person wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.