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Photo by Ken Maldanado

After weeks of dire warnings from jail reform advocates, the independent Lippman Commission, the Legal Aid Society and the Board of Correction that individuals incarcerated on Rikers Island are especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced 300 nonviolent, elderly inmates would be released from the prison complex.

“It’s a very complicated dynamic, it’s one that we’ve literally never dealt with before,” de Blasio said during a March 24 press briefing. “I’m listening to all the input, but I want to make very clear that I’m making the ultimate decisions, taking the advice from all these different sources and doing what I think is the right thing for this city.”

The Lippman Commission explained that prisoners are especially vulnerable to the spread of diseases and illnesses like COVID-19 due to the lack of sanitary products and handwashing, lack of access to health care and tight physical quarters that fuel contagion. More than 500 people at Rikers are 55 years old or more, many with pre-existing conditions.

While the city will release 300 in the coming days, thousands will remain in the dilapidated facilities on Rikers Island. Councilman Robert Holden was joined by 27 of his colleagues and the Correction Officers Benevolent Association Tuesday in calling on the mayor to institute a COVID-19 testing facility on Rikers Island to ensure the safety of all correction officers, employees and inmates at the complex.

In a letter to the mayor, the City Council members pointed out that because correction officers are the only people currently entering and exiting the island on a daily basis, they are highly likely to continue spreading the virus on Rikers and elsewhere. The letter calls for the establishment of a testing facility on Rikers as well as a screening station to evaluate everyone for potential symptoms of COVID-19 as they enter or leave the island.

“Our Correction Officers put their health on the line each and every day, and they alone bear the burden of unknowingly spreading the highly contagious virus to their colleagues and inmates,” Holden said. “They can also spread the virus in their home communities when they leave Rikers Island each day. We must provide them reassurance by working to test every officer as soon as possible to ensure their safety, the safety of other employees, the safety of inmates and the safety of all New Yorkers.” 

Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Elias Hasamudeen agreed that a testing facility is crucial.

“We greatly appreciate the leadership of New York City Council Member Robert Holden and the growing number of Council Members who are joining us in this fight and advocating for this vital facility to help keep our officers safe,” Husamudeen said.

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