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Coronavirus Has Come to Rikers, and the People Inside Are Fighting to Survive

The island’s Communicable Disease Unit is already overflowing with quarantined people.

Rikers Island seen from a plane leaving nearby Laguardia Airport on November 7, 2019.
(Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Coronavirus Has Come to Rikers, and the People Inside Are Fighting to Survive

The island’s Communicable Disease Unit is already overflowing with quarantined people.


This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

As COVID-19 rips through the five boroughs, it is hard to escape the feeling that New York City is drowning in its own lungs. The virus that has brought an entire planet to its knees has been spreading at a frightening pace, and as of 9 p.m. Monday, the city has confirmed at least 13,119 cases—and at least 39 of them are incarcerated on Rikers Island. The notorious city jail complex whose name has become synonymous with violence, filth, and brutality over its 87 torturous years of existence currently houses roughly 5,000 people. There is no telling how many of them have been exposed to the virus, or who is already showing symptoms. 

While the outside world is practicing social distancing and stockpiling supplies at home, the unhappy residents of Rikers Island are locked in crowded dorms with beds 2.5 feet apart, without access to cleaning supplies, personal protection equipment, or soap. The island’s Communicable Disease Unit, which is housed within its West Facility, is already overrun with quarantined people, and the number of people being monitored jumped to 56 from 26 in less than a week; the current count is 82. Prison officials have reopened the recently shuttered Eric M. Taylor Center to stanch the overflow, and calls to release the most vulnerable have been coming from all corners. 

The plague may have come to Rikers, but the people caged within its walls are refusing to go gently into that good night.

On Saturday, prison guards pepper-sprayed eight people who had asked to visit the jail clinic after being exposed to someone who had been exhibiting flulike symptoms. Several of them were hit directly in the face with pepper spray as they waited to go have their temperatures taken. Then, on Sunday—in stated solidarity with the ICE detainees in Hudson County, New Jersey, who are hunger striking for access to basic necessities—two dorms of 45 people incarcerated at Rikers’s Robert N. Davoren Center issued a collective statement alerting allies and the media that they had had enough. As Daniel Defoe wrote in his classic novel “A Journal of the Plague Year,” “One mischief always introduces another.”

New York City’s Board of Correction has been very vocal about the crisis, emphasizing the danger of keeping so many people (especially those who are elderly or dealing with underlying health conditions) together in squalid, cramped quarters during a plague of this magnitude, and urged the city to take “drastic action” in reducing the number of people kept in the city’s jails.  The strikers refused to leave their dorms for work duties or for meals in protest of the deteriorating conditions within the jail, and of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s failure to heed the dire warnings of the Board of Correction. They took these actions in response to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies provided to prisoners, and, as the statement read, to “the crowded living conditions imposed on us prior to the pandemic and made worse by the daily addition of new inmates from other facilities, some of which are highly likely to have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.”

Multiple guards and prison employees have also been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, calling into question how many incarcerated people—and how many of their visitors—have been exposed. In a ghoulish twist of fate, 68-year-old rapist and former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein tested positive for the virus following his stint at Rikers, where it is likely that he contracted the virus and spread it to others after he was transferred up the river to Wende Correctional Facility. 

The entire situation is a ticking time bomb, and the only sane way to halt the virus’s death march and protect the vulnerable is to release as many people as possible. The strikers’ demands are not radical; this is no Attica, or even an overly loud echo of the 2018 prison strike. Rather, they are simply echoing the Board of Correction’s recommendations: to immediately release all people who are over 50 serving sentences for minor violations; those who are at increased risk due to health conditions; and those who have less than a year of sentenced time. By hewing to such basic requests, they make it clear that survival is the most immediate goal. However, de Blasio has only released 75 people. His office is said to be considering release for up to 400 more this week, which is a drop in the bucket. Instead of following the lead of neighboring New Jersey, where 1,000 people are being released from local jails, de Blasio is dragging his feet.  (Though, in fairness, if New York City does end up releasing 400 people from Rikers, it would be a higher percentage of its jail population than New Jersey releasing 1,000 people; New Jersey’s jail population is more than 17,000, about three times the size of New York City’s, and the Garden State needs to step up its own release schedule).

In the meantime, Cuomo, who has leveraged Washington’s leadership vacuum to assume a sort of perverse pseudo-presidential father figure role, is busy doing his damndest to roll back the state’s sorely needed bail reforms. As Brooklyn public defender Scott Hechinger noted on Twitter, Cuomo could use his power to grant clemency to the over 500 people serving short jail sentences for low-level offenses and to order parole for the 666 being jailed for technical parole violations. Over 1,000 people would be freed, just like that. That he has not is a blight on his character, and the sum of their combined cruelty is rapidly approaching biblical proportions. 

Activists, abolitionists, friends, and family have begged these officials to set the people incarcerated on Rikers Island free. High-level medical professionals working at the prison have begged these officials to set them free. The people inside the prison have begged these officials—begged them—for their freedom, because they know that denying it to them is to condemn them to death, and no one on that island deserves a death sentence. The incarcerated are already kept in slavery and squalor, deprived of their liberty and their humanity in service to a crooked justice system that sees them only as idle hands and free labor to churn out hand sanitizer for the more fortunate. Now, thanks to the criminal negligence and yawning cowardice of rich men who publicly swaddle themselves in the mantle of progress, the prisoners of Rikers Island are staring down the Grim Reaper from between iron bars. 

As Defoe wrote of 1665, when the plague swept through London, “Many consciences were awakened; many hard hearts melted into tears; many a penitent confession was made of crimes long concealed.” De Blasio and Cuomo have shown themselves to be men without hearts to break, their consciences left to slumber, their crimes to be revealed once the virus takes its first incarcerated victims. If this wretched timeline proceeds unabated, if the jails and prisons are kept full and their residents led shackled to the slaughter, if things get so bad that the people of Rikers are forced to dig their fellow prisoners’ graves, may these smiling, hollow men never again know a moment of tranquility. Free them all. No justice, no peace.

Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, prisons, and working class resistance can be found in Teen Vogue, the Baffler, the New Republic, the Guardian, and many more. Follow her on Twitter at @grimkim.