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A View From Inside Rikers Island, Where Coronavirus is Spreading Behind Bars

Anonymous Inmate Mar 31

The Indypendent spoke with an inmate at the Rikers Island on multiple occasions over the weekend. A participant in the recent two-day strike at the prison complex last week, he outlined conditions on the island, where at least 167 inmates and 137 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 and in-person visits have been suspended. After our conversations, the Intercept reported that inmates are being offered $6 an hour and much sought-after protective gear to dig mass graves. 

The prisoner, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal, paints a stark picture of life under the threat of pandemic but also of the courage and the solidarity inmates are displaying, despite the negligence of the city’s Department of Corrections. We’ve organized his remarks thematically below and edited them for concision and clarity.

Striking

Normally, getting cleaning supplies replaced is like pulling teeth. That changed with the mini-strike, but I don’t know how long that’s going to last. The doctors told us they were going to do screenings every day, not tests like we had demanded. I understand tests are in short supply, but they said there were no tests on the island, which is not true. 

Initially, they brought in a doctor to ask people if they had symptoms of this, that and the other then just check our name off a list and give us cotton surgical masks. But since Tuesday, they’ve just been standing by the entrance of the dorm and yelling to see if anybody has symptoms, which is not really a screening. 

Prisons and jails are hidden but they’re not totally disconnected from society.

They did it the other day, and after they left, somebody said that, yes, they were coughing and sweating, but they didn’t speak English and didn’t understand. Supposedly we’re going to get a new mask each week, but I’m skeptical of that. They should have given us these supplies a week before we went on strike. It’s the basics. Constitutionally, you have a right to sanitation and hygiene products when you’re incarcerated. 

We were happy that news of the strike got some circulation on the outside and seemed to raise the temperature about releasing folks. I’m very happy that I had a part in that, even if I didn’t personally leave. It was instrumental in forming some new solidarity between us. Everyone was involved. 

Everyone in the dorm is waiting and hoping to hear something about when we’re going home. About two-thirds of the people in my dorm were released over the course of eight hours between Wednesday night and early Thursday morning last week. That’s great, but now that there’s only twelve people in the room instead of forty, I’m kind of worried that they’re just going to be like, “Who cares if they have soap and mop heads on the regular?” 

Hygiene

Before they began moving people out of our dorm, they moved eight people in from another building. And in the building that they had been in, someone had coronavirus, so they gave them all the swab test before they moved them. Less than 24-hours later, they moved four of those people out because their tests came back positive. So they moved eight people that hadn’t gotten their results back into a dorm with like forty people, packing it to the max. They were sleeping feet away from others the whole day.

Even with only twelve people in the dorm, it’s still super crowded and unhygienic. There’s one utility sink that everyone uses. We can sleep more than two feet away from each other. That’s nice. But we still have a dozen people that are washing their hands in the same sink. 

There are a thousand little things every day that make me think, “Oh God, that’s not good.”

It’s very hard. With the phones, for example. They are just not set up for you to keep your distance from people. I have four people within six feet of me right now. This is an environment in which it’s really hard to stick to the hygiene standards that we should be sticking to. 

Corrections officers and captains come to our dorm multiple times a day, without masks or gloves. I woke up this morning because the captain was at the foot of my bed coughing, but not really covering his mouth. Even the COs who serve food are not wearing masks.

In certain parts of the hallways, every ten feet, there are gates and doors you have to knock on for the CO to open them. Those are never wiped down unless you do it yourself. The only way we can do that is by getting all the cleaning supplies together and very nicely asking the CO if you can leave to go into the hall to wipe the stuff down. And sometimes the CO says, “I’m busy, you’ll have to do it later.” We still don’t have paper towels or alcohol pads to wipe down the phones, either. 

There are a thousand little things every day that make me think, “Oh God, that’s not good.” It’s just very hard to keep your distance from people. Remember that it is a public health issue. If it stays here, it will continue to transfer between dorms, then to COs and back out into the community. Prisons and jails are hidden but they’re not totally disconnected from society. 

We have to release a lot more people. 

Oversight

The fact that they knew about the gravity of the coronavirus epidemic before they were doing anything about it is really disturbing. They were calling us to inmate counsel meetings with high-ranking Department of Corrections officials who were saying that this disease is going to affect both COs and inmates, but then they were saying things that were factually untrue, like, “If you aren’t symptomatic, you can’t be contagious.” 

I’m worried things will get so crazy, the workforce will begin to forget about simple things like meals.

They would lash out if you tried and correct them. This was when it was already a big deal, when people were switching to telecommuting. There’s a lot of incompetence, honestly. There’s a lot of disorganization and lack of communication. There’s a lot of pride. They are not at all in the habit of treating inmates as equals. They’re not gonna let you sit there and tell them that they don’t have their science right, because you’re an inmate, even though you are repeating information you can hear on any reputable radio station or from any major news source. 

We were getting pretty upset at them for not testing COs as they came in or encouraging them to wear masks, and this was a week ago. We were like, “Listen, there’s a bridge that everyone comes across with a gate at the other end that everyone passes through to get on this island. Just do the thing they do at airports and measure people’s temperatures. Send them on their way or don’t.”

They won’t listen. 

And as far as masks, we were getting all this push back. They told us, “Our COs can wear masks if they want or not wear masks if they want.” But the COs are in the dorms with us. They’re sitting by the door. They come and go in 8-hour shifts, and then go out into the world. 

The outside world is shutting down. CO’s are calling in sick. The workforce is already getting strained. Inmates are getting sick. The mini-hospital here is full to the brim. They reopened one of the buildings that had just been closed — the dorms at the Eric M. Taylor Center — as part of the plan to close Rikers entirely. That’s not to spread people out, that’s for quarantine. That building is already starting to fill up. 

I’m worried things will get so crazy, the workforce will begin to forget about simple things like meals. I’m locked in a box, so people are just kind of forgetting about me. They definitely don’t care about you. That’s very clear. There are a couple of nice folks that work for DOC, but in general, they just don’t care. It’s not a stretch to think they’d be too stressed to bother and then we’re just locked in here. 

There’s already a lot of that. When our dorm was reputed to have coronavirus, there were some COs refusing services to people. One guy approached a CO to get his methadone and the CO just walked away from him. One guy went to replace his ID, which we have to have and when the CO who was doing the IDs heard what house he was from, she just walked away. 

Morale

Everyone is pretty down. Everyone is in despair. We have no movement, we’re stuck in the dorm. They’ll tell you to open a window, but there’s no cross ventilation. We’re surrounded by brick walls, so there’s not a lot of air or sunlight. And, of course, everyone in my dorm is a person that was not released in the mass exodus, so we’re all anxious as fuck, wondering why we weren’t released, trying to call our lawyers, scanning the radio and the news for when they’re releasing more people. It’s just a bad scene. 

We saw people leave who had fourteen months left. We saw people who were only one month into an 8-month sentence. It doesn’t seem to make sense. We’re scared that our paperwork got lost, or that the DA doesn’t like us. The virus could spread like crazy in here. The hygiene in here is really nasty. There are roaches and mice in the dorms and rats in the hallway. It’s a good place for disease to hang out. I don’t want to be kept in here for this whole coronavirus thing. I plan to do my whole sentence, that’s fine, but this is just crazy. 

Amba Guerguerian contributed to this article.

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