Renewed calls to city to reduce prison population as Omicron cases soar

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Michael Appleton / Mayor’s Office of Photography

A staff member paints a cell on Rikers Island in September 2021.

In March 2020, when the coronavirus crisis was first taking root, attorneys and attorneys pushed New York City to reduce the number of people in its prison system, concerned about the potential spread of a deadly airborne virus. in overcrowded shared facilities where distancing is a long shot.

In the following weeks, the city’s prison population fell to historic lows not seen since World War II, officials said: from 5,458 people incarcerated on March 16, 2020 to 3,824 on April 20, 2020.

“We have reached an historic milestone, and we have done so in a way that is both humanitarian and fair,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement at the time, attributing the decline to a multi-faceted effort. from the Ministry of Health. Correctional, district attorneys, judges, public defenders and state parole officers. Hundreds of people serving shorter sentences have been released under a supervised leave program; other detainees awaiting trial, or for petty parole violations, have also been sent home. Lawyers urged the NYPD to end arrests for low-level offenses and for judges to cancel bail.

“The prevailing feeling at the time was that the default was going to be a release, or a much more nominal bail amount,” said Ann H. Mathews, general manager of criminal defense practices at The Bronx Defenders. “And this seemed to be due to the fact that there was a concerted and shared understanding and recognition of the real dangers posed by, at this point, a largely unknown but potentially deadly virus.”

But the number of people held in the city’s prisons has risen again during the nearly two-year crisis. As of Thursday, 5,345 people were detained by the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC), despite skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates fueled by the omicron variant.

New York City Corrections Council

After a drop in the number of people detained by DOC at the start of the pandemic, the city’s prison population has returned to its pre-pandemic level. This graph shows the figures from March 16, 2020 to December 17, 2021

The 7-day positivity rate for inmates in the prison system who were tested for the virus was more than 29% on Thursday, compared to 23% for all city residents. But people in custody are much less likely to be vaccinated: only 38.4% received both vaccines, compared to 72.3% of all New Yorkers.

The hike has renewed calls from experts and activists for the city to reduce the number of people behind bars again, as it did at the start of the pandemic. The impact of COVID is compounded by deteriorating conditions on Rikers Island in recent months, which has seen massive staff shortages and dysfunctions, an increase in incidents of violence and self-harm and where 16 people in detention are died last year.

READ MORE: As New York prison crisis worsens, stable housing could be the difference between rikers and release

Omicron forced the DOC to suspend in-person visits effective December 22, along with assembly services and other prison programs. The situation is so dire that it prompted DOC commissioner Vincent Schiraldi to write a public letter last week imploring judges and other stakeholders to “consider all available options” to free the people, saying that ” the risks to human beings in our care are at a high level. crisis level.

“As you know, great efforts were made at the start of the pandemic to immediately reduce the prison population in order to avoid a major humanitarian catastrophe,” Schiraldi wrote. “All indications suggest that our prison population faces an equal or greater level of risk from COVID now as at the start of the pandemic.”

But advocates say they see little of the same urgency in freeing people as at the start of the crisis. More than 300 people have been admitted to the city’s prisons in the past two weeks alone; of those currently behind bars, 670 are aged 50 or over, making them more vulnerable to the risk of viruses.

“Every week we talk about hundreds of people newly admitted to DOC custody,” Mathews said.

The overwhelming majority of those held in the city’s prisons are awaiting trial. In an October report, the mayor’s office of criminal justice attributed the increase in the prison population to an increase in the number of inmates charged with violent crimes and “systemic delays” spurred by the COVID crisis, with less court appearances and fewer trial hearings leading to longer stays. bars.

“The New York City court system not only continued to lag behind pre-COVID levels, but struggled to bounce back as quickly as courts in the rest of New York State.” , indicates the report.

But advocates say omicron is demanding the same kind of urgent action that took place at the start of the pandemic to ensure that fewer people are sent and held in the city’s jails.

We know it can happen, and we know it can happen quickly, ”said Mathews. “I hope there will be that same shared recognition now, as we are at a time when the numbers are only increasing rapidly.”

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