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An Update On What’s Happening Inside Rikers Island as Coronavirus Spreads

“The doctors said they were going to come and do screenings every day, but for the past two days, they’ve just come into the dorm and stood by the front door and yelled, ‘Does anybody have any symptoms?’”

(Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday, I was able to speak with a friend incarcerated inside Rikers Island about the situation there as the novel coronavirus spreads. There are over 50 confirmed cases inside the jail complex so far. Today, I got another call from them. (They have asked to continue to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.) They described an ongoing lack of access to cleaning supplies, and proper facilities to wash their hands, as well as a shocking lack of follow-through on a promise to provide daily health screening.

A CHS spokesperson said in a statement yesterday 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, and some identifying characteristics have been changed.

I want to get the fuck out of here, dude. These people, as my dad is fond of saying, could not wipe their asshole with a flashlight and a map. It’s really bad.

There’s just a lot of dumb shit. A guy yesterday went down to the clinic for his methadone and asked to have his temperature taken because he had a fever, so they put him in intake to go to [the recently reopened] EMTC (Eric M. Taylor Center) for quarantine. West Facility, the mini-hospital on the island, is full, it’s at capacity. I have a friend who works there, he hasn’t been there in a few days because we’re in “quarantine” even though it’s the worst quarantine ever from a public health perspective, it’s the dumbest thing. But he said that it was full, it’s been full for a few days now; he said it was 80 or 90 people. 

So they opened up the EMTC, but it’s not to get people over there and space them out, it’s because they’re going to need that to quarantine people. I don’t know what the capacity is, but I can tell you when I was there it was 850 people, and every dorm had people in them except one, a few dorms had very small numbers of people, I think 5 to 15, maybe three or four dorms had low numbers like that, but most dorms had between 30 and 50 people. They’re expecting to quarantine that many people.

One thing that is important is that there were about a dozen people that were told they were going to be released on Monday morning, and they’re still here. The social worker said they’re supposed to be released today, maybe tomorrow, Friday at the latest. It’s taking the DOC three to five days to release people who are cleared to be released, just due to paperwork. The reason they haven’t been released yet is because apparently the DOC is taking time to put people who are being released but don’t have a permanent address in hotels, before releasing people who are being released but do have a permanent address, so it’s back-asswards. 

Not just from a perspective of not having people spend any more time in jail—especially after you told them they’re going home, because that’s true torture—but also, if you’re trying to eliminate contact and crowding, you want as few people as possible in this space, as soon as possible. So you would get the seven people who have permanent addresses out, and then find hotels for the people who don’t, but not make the seven wait while you find hotels for the five. That’s mad weird. 

There’s a lot of frustration from people who have been waiting for over two days now who were told they were going home on Monday. They’re giving us masks once a week, our cleaning supplies are starting to dwindle again. 

The doctors said they were going to come and do screenings every day, but for the past two days, they’ve just come into the dorm and stood by the front door and yelled, “Does anybody have any symptoms?” and then walked out. The first day, they sat down, had everybody come in, checked them off a list, asked them if they had symptoms, if anyone said they weren’t sure, they took their temperature. 

They’re not doing any of that [now]. They did that once. And now they just come in and yell. Some people don’t speak English, some people are in the shower or the toilet or the day room or listening to the radio or taking a nap, you know? Because if one person has it in a dorm of 40-odd people, that’s a huge problem. 

I’m doing okay. Send me letters, I’m good on books. I’m reading like a maniac. I’m reading about Bobby Sands and the 1981 Irish hunger strikers right now, so at least I’m not lying naked in my cell 24 hours a day, shitting into my hand to smear it on the walls. There’s that. 

I’m trying to keep to my bed and spend as little time in the bathroom and the day room as possible. I am also really good at washing my hands … checking in with myself, like “Did I wash my hands between taking the tray and eating?” That’s important. 

One thing that’s important to know about this setup in this dorm in particular, is that there are eight sinks, but they’re these weird mini-sink/water fountain combination units that totally suck. They’re not really functional as handwashing stations. 

There’s a little bowl-shaped metal depression in this metal cube bolted to the wall at waist height, and then on the back board, there’s a button one each side, and then a little nub in the middle. So you press a button on the left or the right, it doesn’t really seem to make a difference as to water temperature (laughs) but then water shoots out of a little hole in the nub in a little arc, just like a water fountain. 

So you can drink from it, which nobody does because that’s gross, or you can wash your hands in it, which very few people do because the water pressure is terrible. It’s like washing your hands in a water fountain. It takes for-fucking-ever, and you keep bumping your hands into the edges of the bowl, which re-contaminates them. So there’s those eight sinks, and there’s one utility sink, like you’d see in a janitor’s closet. 

So really, everyone is using this one utility sink for most of their needs, brushing teeth, washing hands, doing laundry, washing dishes. For 45 people, there’s one actual sink that people use for pretty much everything, unless there’s a line for it, which there often is, in which case people will spend an extra sixty seconds washing their hands under these shitty jail sinks.

My friend called back a few hours later and said:

I’m not going home still, but about an hour ago, I tried to keep count, they called about 23 names of people in my dorm. They were different from the names that were called out on Monday, except for four whose names were called out a second time. Strangely, these people were told to pack up now and to pack lightly, and when pressed, the [corrections officers] and captains told them they’re going home. They’re probably transferring them to EMTC for a couple days so they can process them all and then send them home, but a lot of people are leaving. I am not leaving, which is unfortunate. But apparently another list is coming out tomorrow. We don’t know, I could still leave.

For the meantime, I’ll have a lot of space. And I had like four people so far give me everything they own except what they want to take with them. People that were called had a variety of charges, violent and nonviolent, felony and misdemeanor. … 

Nobody can figure out the rhyme or reason to it, people are very skeptical, that they’re just moving them to another building to break them up or to space them out or whatever. But slowly the skepticism has kind of dissipated and people are like, “Oh my God, we’re actually going home.” It might take a couple days, they’re probably not going to be out on the street tonight, but they’re in the process.