Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

A Man With Coronavirus Symptoms At Rikers Island Describes His Ordeal

‘I would go to the hospital very often and they wouldn’t do anything for me.’

(Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

A Man With Coronavirus Symptoms At Rikers Island Describes His Ordeal

‘I would go to the hospital very often and they wouldn’t do anything for me.’


It’s been over a month since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 inside New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex, and since then the virus has been spreading rapidly. For one man who started displaying COVID-19 symptoms, the jail’s hospital facilities offered little respite.

Diego, 27, is originally from Ecuador, and has been sick for over a month. He and Jorge, 37, who is in the same dorm, spoke to The Appeal in a series of brief phone calls. (Their names have been changed to protect them from reprisals).

Diego describes the symptoms that have led him to seek help at the clinic, over and over again: blurry vision, congestion, chest pains, headaches, fatigue, difficulty breathing. 

“I would go to the hospital very often and they wouldn’t do anything for me. Nothing, nothing,” he said in Spanish.

“Then I got sicker, and I almost passed out. … They moved me to the other side and gave me the coronavirus test, and told me I wasn’t positive-positive, because the test came out pre-positive,” he said. “And they put me in with the sick and kept me there for 8 days in isolation, and it was very ugly there. … And there’s no disinfectants there, there’s nothing, and no one is tending [to the sick]. Doctors every day come only at 11 a.m. to see [patients], nothing more.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that a presumptive positive result like Diego’s should be treated as a positive. 

Before he was transferred into the Eric M. Taylor Center, a formerly shuttered facility that was re-opened to serve as a quarantine ward for COVID-19 patients, Diego says he was kept in an intake cell from 4 p.m. until 8 a.m. the next day, with no food or water. Once he was let into the facility, he said he and the other patients were only given one proper meal, and water from a faucet in the bathroom. “They’d give us coffee at 5 a.m., lunch at 4 p.m. and then a snack at 9 p.m.” he said.

After spending eight days in medical quarantine, where he says he was not treated for his symptoms, Diego was sent back to his dorm. He said he is still suffering from intense eye pain that has made it difficult for him to see or sleep, has massive headaches, congestion and sometimes has trouble breathing. He said he still frequently goes back to the clinic seeking help, and they take his temperature and send him back.

“I feel sick, and they tell you you’re okay,” he says. “Here, they don’t help at all. My sentence was six months and I’m three months away from going home, and this is how I am.”

The New York City Department of Correction did not respond by publication time to questions about the quality of medical care. On its website, the DOC says that “patients receive care and treatment at CHS locations or, as appropriate, at acute care facilities within the NYC Health + Hospitals system, which is among the best equipped in the nation to provide the appropriate, safe care to those patients.”

As of April 22, at least 369 people incarcerated in New York City jails, 842 Department of Correction staff, and 140 medical workers have tested positive for the virus. At least two people who became infected while incarcerated at Rikers have died: 53-year-old Michael Tyson, and 63-year-old Walter Ance. (According to the Intercept, Raymond Rivera was the first person to die after becoming infected at Rikers, but he is not included in the DOC’s official death toll due a technicality).

Jorge said he has high blood pressure and has been having anxiety attacks due to the tension inside the dorm, but when he visits the clinic they refuse to give him aspirin, or treat anyone who doesn’t have COVID-19 symptoms. He said cleaning supplies are still running low in the facility and masks are scarce. People in the dorms are using T-shirts to fashion makeshift ones—”like ninja status”—and staying as far apart as they can in an effort to protect themselves. 

“We try not to get too close to each other, we sweep and mop every day with the little bit of chemicals they give us,” he adds. “There’s a bed in between each other, and [by now] there’s only 10 of us in here, but everybody’s scared … it’s mostly the panic of getting this.”

Meanwhile, last week, the Department of Correction donated over 30,000 masks that were being kept in storage on Rikers Island to the FDNY, though Mayor Bill de Blasio had previously said the department had plenty of supplies. The corrections officers’ union also sued the city earlier this month over a dearth of personal protective equipment; the suit, which was supported by Legal Aid, was settled last week after the city agreed to provide more masks and testing sites to corrections personnel. A DOC spokesperson said via email, “We have an adequate supply of masks. The practice of sharing masks is a standard procedure, and we will continue to engage in this practice to ensure we have an appropriate number of masks across our City agencies.”

Jorge says personnel inside Rikers seem worried about getting sick themselves, and while some corrections officers are “okay,” others are colder, and treat the people incarcerated there as a potential health risk. “The officers are afraid of being near us.”

“[They] look at us and try to stay away from us, they don’t want us close to them, not even at a six feet, 10 feet distance,” he explains. “They don’t want to sit inside the dorm with us. I think they’re afraid because they think that we might get them sick, while in all reality, they’re the ones that get to go outside. We’ve been stuck in here for more than a month now.”

Jorge has a request for those on the outside who are following along with what’s happening inside Rikers. “Reach out to the mayor, and maybe the commissioner of the island, they need to come in and see the conditions that we’re living in,” he said. “Nobody comes down here to see the dorm and how we’re living. This is inhumane. We’re just locked in here in a cage like animals, and they don’t even want to give us medical treatment; not even for a headache, not even an aspirin. It’s real bad.”