Rikers Update: Prisoners Were Told They Were Being Released, Only to Be Transferred

Amba Guerguerian Apr 6, 2020

The Indypendent recently spoke with an inmate on Rikers about conditions at the jail complex, where, as of Sunday, 273 detainees, 321 staff, and 53 health workers have contracted coronavirus. He told us that about two-thirds of the people in his dormitory were released over the course of eight hours between March 22 and March 23. 

“We saw people leave who had fourteen months left,” he said. “We saw people who were only one month into an 8-month sentence. It doesn’t seem to make sense.” 

He couldn’t see any logic behind who the Department of Corrections was releasing.

Last week, we heard from a second inmate who provided an update to the first inmate’s story. He was one of the prisoners who were told they were being released and excitedly prepared to leave, unaware that he was only going somewhere worse. 

‘You wouldn’t believe it unless you see it.’

“The deputies came down and a few captains,” said the inmate — who, like the first prisoner The Indy spoke with, asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal — describing his situation. “They had a list of names, and they said, you guys are going home. They called out our names and we packed our bags like we were going home. We left our commissary items, our extra clothes and things of that nature with the intention of going home.”

While some inmates have been released, others were taken to dorms at the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC), a recently reopened building on Rikers Island. 

“We go down to intake, to where we’re thinking we’re being released, and then they take us to EMTC,” the prisoner said. “By the time we got there, they tell us, ‘I don’t know who lied to you, and no, you’re not going home.’” 

The condition of EMTC made the inmate, who has asthma, extremely worried for his health.  

“You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it,” he said. “One guy had an asthma attack. It took about 30 minutes for medical staff to come upstairs to attend to him. Another guy had heart failure on medical records. He took ill and passed out, and the same thing happened. Another older guy said he was having chest pains. It took about two to three hours before they sent medical staff upstairs.”

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After being transferred to EMTC, the inmates were provided with a “limited” amount of soap, and no cleaning supplies until the sixth day they were there, when one mop and one broom were provided for about thirty men to share, according to his account. He also reported seeing guards bring healthy inmates into unsanitized cells previously occupied by coronavirus-positive prisoners while assuring the prisoners that the cells had been cleaned. 

Aside from the cruelty of fostering false hopes among the inmates it is, the transfers present a  public health issue. Moving and mixing groups of healthy and sick people from one unsanitized building to another increases the likelihood of spreading the virus, which can then be funneled back into the outside world by jail staff. 

Ross MacDonald, the lead doctor at Rikers, has taken to Twitter in recent days to urge officials to release those who are coronavirus-vulnerable. 

“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,” he tweeted in response to a letter from the city’s district attorneys and its Special Narcotics Prosecutor that called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brann to halt the trickle of detainees leaving Rikers. “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.”

On Sunday,  the first coronavirus-related death among the inmate population occurred. Michael Tyson of the Bronx was 53-years old and was in for violating his parole. The Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit for his release on Friday.

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