The Catastrophe in New York City Jails

The Catastrophe in New York City Jails

The survival of incarcerated people is dependent on slow-moving bureaucrats and the politically calculating whims of sadistic politicians.

A sign at the entrance to Rikers Island (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

[contentblock id=coronavirus]

On the evening of Sunday, March 15, David Perez, an investigator for the New York City Department of Correction, died after being diagnosed with coronavirus. He had “limited contact with people in custody,” said Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann. She later added that “for at least a month,” he had had no personal contact with people who were incarcerated.

As Perez lay dying, NYC’s public defenders were issuing dire warnings, which I read on Twitter from my darkening, disinfected apartment in Brooklyn. Public defenders at the Legal Aid Society of New York and Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) had been pushing the city for a rational coronavirus plan to deal with crowded, filthy city jails since March 2. Now, the disease was licking at the edges of New York’s jail system, which houses about 9,000 people.

Defenders felt catastrophe coming. “Ppl are reporting lack of soap, no information & are scared,” tweeted a coordinator at BDS. Brooklyn public defender and organizer Scott Hechinger tweeted, “Thousands caged on Rikers Island pretrial, serving short sentences on misdemeanors, or remanded on non-criminal technical probation & parole violations cannot heed the warnings, have no access to hand sanitizer or free soap,” and proceeded to share reports he was getting from colleagues, including one about a man who was arrested and caged for moving between subway cars and was kept in the likely infected system for twenty-four hours. All Sunday night, lawyers feared that ongoing petty arrests would turn misdemeanors into death sentences.

On the morning of Monday, March 16, Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the gym. I found this odd, since I was then socially distancing myself from fellow New Yorkers at his direction. I was also coordinating with neighbors in my building to offer grocery delivery to elders while being terrified that by touching the same grocery bag I could unknowingly kill them. “The YMCA has been a huge part of his and his family’s life, like it has been for a lot of New Yorkers,” said his spokesman on CNN. “It’s clear that’s about to change and before that, the mayor wanted to visit a place that keeps him grounded one last time.”

By that Wednesday, the first cases of coronavirus on Rikers Island had been confirmed. There are now over 1,200 confirmed cases in New York City’s jails, and ten people have died. Reporter Nick Pinto noted last month that city jails were holding 551 people convicted of minor crimes that carry sentences of a year or less, all of whom could be released by de Blasio by executive order. Instead, the mayor announced forty people would be released, with another list of 200 under consideration. (After activists denounced this plan as pathetic, de Blasio announced a much larger release; 1,400 people have now been freed from Rikers.)

Six days after his gym visit, de Blasio announced that social distancing was now mandatory and would be enforced by the police. (The police have since arrested at least a few people for violating the order, with one woman describing being locked in a cell with two dozen other women and no soap.)

The interesting thing about coronavirus isolation is how it is, for many, the first experience of having one’s movement restricted. Our freedom is, and should be, extremely important to us. De Blasio had trouble letting go of his beloved workout routine. For many of us, being cut off from the warm, breathing presence of friends and family has resulted in some version of depression.

This moment presents an opportunity to extend our moral imaginations to places of ongoing confinement. As advocates and writers have pointed out over and over, being inside a prison marks a person as “bad” and exempts everyone else from thinking seriously about their well-being. That’s one reason American jails had become places of death well before coronavirus. It is increasingly common sense that the scale of American incarceration is demented—consider the half a million incarcerated people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. But what coronavirus should teach us is the fundamental evil of locking up anyone. Removing a person’s autonomy is psychologically damaging, a fundamental assault on their humanity. Those in isolated confinement, according to the American Psychological Association, “experience panic, anxiety, rage, depression and hallucinations.”

In the final analysis, being forcibly confined means being prevented from protecting oneself from death. This should be abundantly clear with the rise of coronavirus. The survival of incarcerated people is dependent on slow-moving bureaucrats and the politically calculating whims of sadistic politicians. Andrew Cuomo, for example, seized on the coronavirus crisis to roll back bail reform. The landmark reform passed last year prohibited judges from setting cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies; the rollback makes several crimes eligible again for bail. But every month, in county after county, incarcerated people die for want of medical care, mental health care, despair, and wanton cruelty. They are prohibited from accessing anything that could help them. Incarcerated Americans are, in essence, locked in inescapable rooms inside burning buildings.

An average day in New York is not that different from March 16: the mayor goes to the YMCA and people suffer abuse, illness, and death in city jails. But the autonomy that many of us continue to enjoy in our own apartments, combined with the legitimate anguish of isolation, ought to create a more visceral awareness of the fundamental evil of locking up human beings. And amid the chaos, longtime organizers are offering myriad ways to act in solidarity and use our freedom to free others.

If you have money, you can get your fellow New Yorkers out of jail and back home by donating to local bail funds. Follow these organizations for guidance on more political action that you can take. Most of these funds operated prior to the COVID-19 crisis and are part of a larger movement against cash bail. Cash bail ensures that everyday people are kept in filthy cells, away from their families, because they are poor. Bail funds increasingly provide both material help and political organizing:

Brooklyn Community Bail Fund

Bronx Freedom Fund

Emergency Release Fund, dedicated to getting trans folks out of jail.

Donate to the NYC chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee commissary fund, which helps people organize while inside.

Contribute to the COVID19 bailout.

You can also:

Volunteer to post bail in Brooklyn, Manhattan, or Queens.

Call on Cuomo to use his clemency powers to free survivors of violence – this campaign is being led by Survived and Punished, an organization that supports criminalized survivors.

Join Court Watch NYC, which will be up and running post-pandemic but has been sending out useful updates in the meantime.


Sarah Leonard is an editor at large at Dissent.