Now, he is among hundreds of high-risk inmates held inside a jail where the virus is spreading rapidly. But he was not among the nearly four dozen people Mayor Bill de Blasio released from Rikers Island this weekend.
“Every single person now trapped on Rikers and other jails throughout New York State, serving short sentences for non-violent and other low-level offenses, will be released shortly anyway,” Hechinger told The Washington Post in an email. “Why risk turning a couple of months for low-level drug possession or petit theft into a death sentence?”
At least 38 people who either reside or work in the New York City jail system have tested positive for coronavirus. The number of people being monitored in contagious disease and quarantine units more than doubled from 26 to 56 in less than a week. Jail officials said they expect the number of infected inmates to rise exponentially.
The mayor approved the release of 23 more people Sunday, and his office is reviewing 200 other cases to determine whether more people will be released.
Close quarters, a lack of soap and hand sanitizer, and insufficient medical care have led inmates, advocates and jail doctors to urge public officials to authorize the release of hundreds of people held for minor violations. Many fear catastrophic outbreaks will rip through jails and prisons, which tend to house many older, sicker people.
“We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom,” Ross MacDonald, the chief physician for Rikers Island, tweeted Wednesday. “Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day.”
The city’s board of corrections said 551 people are serving “city sentences” of less than a year for minor offenses and another 666 have been jailed for a parole or probation violation, such as breaking curfew, failing a drug test or missing a check-in with a parole officer. The board urged de Blasio to allow mass releases for those inmates who pose little threat to public safety. It also asked the mayor to consider releasing people over the age of 50 who are serving sentences for minor violations and people in the infirmary with underlying conditions, both populations that could be particularly vulnerable to covid-19.
“A storm is coming,” MacDonald tweeted. “We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”
One ray of hope for Rikers Island and other New York jails has been the bail reform that the state instituted in January. Because of that legislative change, people charged with most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies are not being jailed before they go to trial. That decision was made before the coronavirus outbreak, but it has reduced the number of people cycling through New York jails in the past three months.
The district attorney for Brooklyn also announced his prosecutors would be using their discretion to decline “low-level offenses that don’t jeopardize public safety.” Meanwhile, the New York Police chief said his agency won’t slow arrests, even as 98 NYPD employees, including 70 officers, have been diagnosed with covid-19 as of Sunday.
The pleas for leniency heard in New York have echoed across the country as the coronavirus has spread to jails and prisons. Counties across California have released hundreds of people to thin jail populations in the state and on Sunday officials confirmed the first state prisoner had tested positive for the virus. Officials in Maine, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas have also begun releasing inmates in recent days to reduce the impact of the coronavirus.
Three Georgia prisoners tested positive for the virus last week, intensifying calls in that state to release some inmates. But state officials have thus far refused to change release procedures. In New Jersey, immigrant detainees held in three county jails have started hunger strikes after being denied release amid coronavirus fears, and in one jail public defenders alleged detainees were not given soap to wash their hands.
As people serving sentences or awaiting trial for minor crimes are released from jails, many doctors and advocates still worry about what a coronavirus outbreak is going to look like behind bars. Thousands of people with more serious convictions and charges will remain in jails and prisons, and there is little doctors can do to prevent the spread inside crowded correctional facilities.
“While everyone is now focused on the release of people charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, we can’t just ignore the fates of thousands of other human beings jailed pretrial, presumed innocent,” Hechinger told The Post.