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At the Center of the Coronavirus Pandemic, People Inside NYC Jails Describe Fear, Confusion and a Lack of Supplies

‘They’re not supplying us with masks, they’re not supplying us gloves, they’re not supplying us with decent cleaning supplies.’

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.)

Michael Tyson died on Sunday at age 53. His last moments were spent in a hospital bed at Bellevue, the nation’s oldest public hospital, where he’d been moved from Rikers Island on March 26 after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the New York Times. Before coming to Rikers, he’d been locked away in the belly of The Boat—a colloquialism for the Vernon C. Bain Center, New York City’s floating jail. He had been brought there on a technical parole violation on February 28, the Daily News reported—Tyson had apparently moved house without notifying his parole officer—and was awaiting his hearing when the virus took over. The Legal Aid Society and New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last week demanding the release of 100 people on parole warrants from city jails, including Tyson—but by then, it was too late.

He became the first person incarcerated in New York City to die from coronavirus, and it is a gut-wrenching certainty that he will not be the last. As of Wednesday, at least 287 people incarcerated in the city’s jails and 441 staffers have tested positive for COVID-19—and the numbers outside the walls are even more dire. 

A man incarcerated in Rikers, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, says he was infected with COVID-19 after being moved from his cell into a communal dorm. A recording of a phone call with him was provided to The Appeal by a volunteer group that works with incarcerated people at Rikers, which asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Six days after the move, he said he began experiencing a fever, headache, chills, and fatigue, and was running a fever of 101.4 degrees. He was told he was being sent to Bellevue, but instead the prisoner, who is in his 60s, was kept quarantined in the island’s West Facility for nine days, during which time he said he was given Tylenol and “white and blue capsules they said was flu medication” and tested for the virus. He said he has recovered physically, but the experience left him shaken, and scared.

“The day I left, they finally told me that I had tested positive,” he said. “But when I got back to the quarantine housing area they transferred me to, they said that I had the flu. I was asking, ‘Why would you say I had the flu? My immune system was compromised; why would you put me where the coronavirus is?’ and I got, ‘Oh you’ll be okay.’ You could see that something was wrong, they were covering up something. I’ve been here terrified since then.”

“No one has faith in the clinic downstairs because everyone feels as though things are being withheld,” he said.

He said that when he went back to the clinic to pick up a copy of his medical records to send to his lawyer, he was told he wouldn’t be able to get one for eight weeks. 

“So I asked them, could they look on the computer screen and tell me the results of my coronavirus test?” he said. “They said the results weren’t there, so again, it was obvious that they were withholding information. It seems to me that they’re trying to cover up mistakes that they made.” 

He said the beds in his dorm of 30 people are about a foot and a half apart, making it impossible to keep a distance from others. “It’s a relatively big room, but the way it’s situated, we’re still on top of each other.”

In response to questions from The Appeal, a New York City Department of Correction spokesperson said the agency “has an extensive COVID-19 plan,” and that it attempts to promote social distancing in dormitories by leaving an empty bed between people where possible. The spokesperson said the department gives masks to all staff and people in custody, and offers hand soap and cleaning supplies, including disinfectant, general cleaner, floor cleaner, and gentle scrub, free of charge to detainees. 

David Campbell, 33, who has been in Rikers since October, said the DOC’s response to the outbreak has been “nonsense.” (This reporter has been friends with Campbell for several years). 

“There was an order by a judge three or four days ago for DOC employees to wear masks, and maybe half of them wear masks,” he said. “We are supposed to get a new flimsy standard cotton surgical mask a week, but we haven’t had a new one in 10 days, so I don’t know when I’ll get another one of those. I doubt it’s anything more than completely expired at this point.” 

He said that they haven’t gotten new mop heads or sponges for about a week, and a doctor hasn’t come by to check on his dorm during that time. “It’s always like pulling teeth to get more hand soap,” Campbell said. “The stuff we’re using to wipe down the phones is stuff we stockpiled on our own, they didn’t give it to us. I haven’t seen anybody in the hallways to wipe down the doorknobs and the door jambs and the railings and the stairs since this whole thing began.”

Campbell, a licensed funeral director who spent years serving low-income communities in Brooklyn, is doubly frustrated because he knows how necessary his particular expertise has become on the outside. “We need him out here,” said Amy Cunningham, a funeral home owner and friend of Campbell’s who has been calling for his release. “It’s getting awful.” 

He said he’s having trouble sleeping due to stress, and a recent trip to the clinic for an unrelated malady exposed the DOC’s dangerously lackadaisical approach to social distancing. Campbell describes being placed into a roughly five-by-ten-foot holding pen with eight other people, all from different housing units throughout the building; his own dorm has been under quarantine for weeks, but no effort was made to keep people separated, he said, and available holding cells haven’t been used. “They just put us all into this fucking pen,” he said. “There’s no air in there.”

Campbell’s hope is that he and everyone else there won’t have to suffer under these conditions for much longer, for their own sake as well as the rest of New York City, which has seen the highest number of infections and deaths from the coronavirus in the country. 

“We’ve known for over a month that the crowded conditions at Rikers put people at serious risk of the coronavirus,” Phil Desgranges, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “New York must dramatically reduce its incarcerated population and take immediate steps to reduce the risk to any individuals who remain incarcerated. The governor and other officials can still take action to save lives, manage the spread of the virus, and ensure people can isolate and get treatment in safe environments.”

Rikers isn’t the only city detention facility currently full of frightened, vulnerable New Yorkers. The Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC)—a brutalist bloc known better as the Tombs—sits in what was historically the Five Points district, a notorious slum where killer diseases like cholera ran amok through the miserable, poverty-stricken population in the 1800s. 

In a voicemail message provided to The Appeal by the same volunteer group, a man who is incarcerated at the MDC, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, described desperate conditions mirroring those at Rikers. He said he would not be in jail today if the bail reform law that was passed last year and recently rolled back were in effect.

He said that phone calls to 311 from the jail are restricted to six minutes, and “after all the debriefings on the teleprompts, you don’t even have a minute left to make any complaints.” Crucial supplies are running low, he said, or are nonexistent.

“They’re not supplying us with masks, they’re not supplying us gloves, they’re not supplying us with decent cleaning supplies,” he said. “It’s obvious that we can’t keep six feet of distance. You’ve got guys coming in constantly scratching and digging about their body parts and hacking and coughing, open garbage receptacles that aren’t covered and have mucus, phlegm, and things like that.” 

“I’m just trying to get out to my two children, one of which will be 1 year old [this month], and an 8-year-old, and my wife,” he said.

Now that Tyson has lost his life as well as his freedom, people incarcerated in the city and their loved ones are anxiously watching to see what happens next.

“There’s a lot of talk about what [his death] means,” Campbell said. “If that means that they’ll start letting people go, that’s the hopeful line of commentary on it. The other end is, you know that if you get it, and if you have complications, then you’re fucked.”

This story has been updated with a response from the New York City Department of Correction.