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What It’s Like to Be Inside Rikers Island As Coronavirus Spreads

“Still no hand sanitizer, no bleach.”

(Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, the situation inside New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex is deteriorating, with over 35 confirmed cases and an ongoing lack of access to basic resources and testing.

This morning, I received a phone call from a friend who has been incarcerated on the island for the past several months, and who asked to be kept anonymous for fear of retaliation. They filled me in on the current situation inside the walls, including an update on this weekend’s work stoppage. 

The Appeal reached out to the New York City Department of Correction for comment, and was told to direct questions to Correctional Health Services. A CHS spokesperson said in a statement that the agency is working to ensure CDC and other official recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19 are being followed.

“CHS screens patients upon admission to the NYC jail system and during every patient encounter, to identify health issues, including signs and symptoms of COVID-19,” the spokesperson said. “If clinically indicated, patients are placed in special housing units for monitoring or isolation for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of COVID-19 infection.”

The following account has been lightly edited for clarity.

I’m okay. Just a little … we’ve been trapped in that dorm for two days. So the day before yesterday, we stuck it up, which was that mini strike. We didn’t leave the dorm for work or meals—that got some attention, which is good, actually it got a lot of attention—so we got some cleaning supplies and masks and screenings from that. I think a reporter asked de Blasio about it at the last press conference, somebody told me Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned it [recently], which is great. 

But we were demanding the release of the people here that the Board of Correction demanded be released, everyone 50 and over [with minor violations], with health problems, with less than a year remaining, and parole violations, but that still hasn’t happened. They—meaning the social worker dude who looks like Forest Whittaker that seems to live in a closet upstairs, but I can’t confirm that, it’s complicated (laughs)—he came down with a list of people, and read off about a dozen names on each side. I’m on one dorm, right, and across the hall is another dorm, and there’s what they call the bubble in the middle, which is a Plexiglass-encased [corrections officer] observation station, and so if you’re looking straight through the bubble, you can see into the other dorm and wave at people. 

So about a dozen people on each side, their names were pulled out and they were given paperwork to fill out to go home, on what’s technically work release. But it doesn’t look like it’s work release, it’s just a way for people to get processed to get out, because you have to report to your work release guide or whatever, but there’s none of that—they don’t have to have a job right now, that’s for sure. It’s just a way to get people out. 

So there’s about a dozen people in my dorm who are leaving, they were supposed to leave yesterday, they’re still here, they’re still waiting. The building was on lockdown most of the day yesterday, I think from about 11 a.m. on, they shut the phones off because [somebody] apparently jumped a CO, and they hurt him, so the building’s on lockdown. 

There’s also ambiguity about whether our dorm is in quarantine. Nobody knows, nobody’s told us. There’s nobody that has symptoms right now so it’s hard to tell who’s actually sick, but there were [people who were sick]. There was one guy, this would’ve been maybe five days ago, who was visibly sick and had the symptoms, and it took them two and a half hours to get him down to the clinic. He kept asking to go, and asking to go—and he could easily have gone, there were people that could’ve escorted him—but it took them two and a half hours to get him down there. 

And then, I think the next day, there was an older Chinese guy, who had symptoms, who went down in the evening, with a younger Chinese-American guy who speaks English so he could translate for him, and they put them both in a holding pen, which is a holding cell in the intake area. Intake is where you go whenever you’re coming or going through the building. And they put them both in a holding cell with all of the other people who were showing symptoms, didn’t give the translator guy who said he wasn’t feeling sick a mask, left them there for eight hours, then sent the one guy over to quarantine, and sent the translator back to the dorm, without checking in or giving him a mask. He seems to be fine, amazingly. That doesn’t mean he’s not a carrier, but that’s what they did.

And if you think that’s fuckin’ wild, this was also about five days ago, they brought in about 15 people into the dorm, which was relatively empty. It still was nowhere near possible to space ourselves out six feet apart, even though they’re putting up posters everywhere that say, “Space yourselves six feet apart!” It’s completely impossible. Even if this place was half full, it would still be impossible at most times. 

Anyways, with people coming and going, it’s like a fuckin’ petri dish for infectious diseases. So they brought [about] 15 people into this dorm, making it more crowded, about five days ago; about eight of those came in around 5 a.m., and then at 11 p.m. that same day—so that’s over 24 hours later—they came in and took four of those eight out. The reason why was because they had been in a dorm in a different building, a [North Infirmary Command (NIC)] building, where someone had symptoms. So they took them out and moved them in here; before they did, they gave them swab tests, they talked about a long test that went way up your nose and was very uncomfortable. 

“This whole system is a reservoir for the disease while the curve is getting out of control on the outside.”

They didn’t wait for the test results to come back [before they moved them.] They got the test results back and those four were positive. So they moved in people who had been tested without knowing their test results, knowing they might be positive, into our dorm, and left them here. I was sleeping two feet away from one of them. 

Now, we may or may not be in “quarantine”—which if it is, it’s the most half-assed quarantine ever, because COs and captains come and go into our dorm all the time without wearing masks. Apparently, about 12 people are still getting released out into the world—not that I’m opposed to that, but it’s just not a real quarantine. So basically it just means, if we are in quarantine, we just have to stay in the dorm, we can’t go to yard, we can’t leave for meals, we can’t leave for jobs, anything like that for the next 13 days. But if it’s not medically practical, which it’s definitely not, then what does it matter? (laughs) They’re just being idiots. 

They’re not testing people, though. They’re denying that they even have tests on the island, NIC is the chronic health issues building, that’s where Harvey fuckin’ Weinstein was. NIC is where you go if you’re a very sick person who is still incarcerated, they have more medical supplies than most other places. We’ve demanded tests here repeatedly, and they say, “Oh, we don’t have them.” I know there’s not enough tests in the outside world, but they have them on the island. We know, because people came in here and explained to us in great detail how they got tested. If you ask really any DOC official, they just throw sand in your eyes about whatever. We’ve talked to captains, deps—which are higher-ranking than captains, deputy wardens—and they’ve told us, “Oh, you’re freaking out, you’re at no greater risk than anybody else, it’s no worse than the common cold.” When we refused to hear that, they called us ignorant and dumb as shit. 

The [mini strike] is done, it’s over, we couldn’t really do it if we wanted to. Yesterday, nobody was called for work, nobody was called for the yard, when we were called for meals, we went up to the top of the staircase and each grabbed a tray, instead of going down to the mess hall. So yesterday was a weird day. … Sending 12 people home and having multiple DOC people come in without masks and wander around in a supposedly quarantined dorm every hour or so, it’s completely ridiculous.

It makes you feel like not only do they not care about us, we knew that, but they’re just completely incompent, and they’re much more interested in covering their asses from a litigation standpoint than they are in actually taking care of people. That much is clear. They go around and put up posters before they give you cleaning supplies, before they even tell you anything. We had to go on a mini strike to get cleaning supplies, to get personal protective equipment, but they’ll go around and put up posters and signs that say to stay six feet apart, like oh, okay (laughs). It’s complete nonsense. 

Look, the public health argument, aside from arguments from compassion about releasing people, is that this whole system is a reservoir for the disease while the curve is getting out of control on the outside. Inmates and COs and social workers are going home every day, will start to reinfect people once they come out and go back into the streets; it’ll continue to go around and around in here, because of the way it’s constructed with a shifting population. 

I was surprised when I read it in the news last week, but I totally understand why the Board of Correction recommended that so many people be released. I can totally see why it’s necessary; it’s not just because this place is overcrowded, and basically built to [allow] infectious diseases [to spread] from one person to another—an unfortunate side effect of the way jails are built, it seems. But also, the DOC cannot handle this. There is no way. They don’t have the equipment, and they definitely don’t have the willpower. They definitely don’t have the manpower. There’s no way. Most of the people of various ranks in the DOC we’ve spoken to about this have been in almost complete denial, giving us completely impractical, impossible advice like, “Eat more oranges!” and then someone will come through and tell us to throw out all our oranges because they’re contraband. 

We have some cleaning products, but we had to fight for them. Still no hand sanitizer, no bleach. 

Everyone in here is paying attention to the news, all day, to see what the next development is, who they’re releasing. The people that are being released from my dorm, we assume, are on the first list of 200, and [de Blasio] said there’s another list of maybe 100 to 200 that’s being released on Wednesday. They all had less than 90 days left. At this point, it may take a week before it gets serious; I talked to my lawyer, she said she thinks as it gets more serious on the outside, more and more people are going to be released.

Even if you’re young and healthy, if you get it and you do have complications, you’re not going to get any treatment here; you don’t even have the benefit of Googling at-home treatments, you know what I mean? You don’t have the benefit of the stuff you might have in your medicine cabinet at home here. If you go to the clinic here, you’re going to be put into a cage at intake and you’re going to wait for maybe 12, 24 hours; that’s the treatment that you’ll get. Or they’ll transfer you to an overcrowded building. The reason they opened the EMTC back up is for quarantine, not so they can space people out. De Blasio said yesterday that we have space on the island? Yeah, but most of those buildings are closed and crumbling and covered in ivy. You can’t put people there, in worse buildings than we’re already living in. 

This place is pretty hectic right now. I’m safe in my dorm, I’m happy my friends are going home, hopefully today, but it’s very hectic. They might cut off the phones, so you might not hear from me for a while.