Top doctor at Rikers Island calls the jail a ‘public health disaster unfolding before our eyes’

Originally published by Washingto Post, Meagan Flynn on 31/03/2020


Ross MacDonald, the chief medical doctor of New York City’s correctional health services, has urged prosecutors to support the continued release of vulnerable inmates to avoid a public health disaster. According to the New York Times, at least 167 inmates and 137 corrections staff and health workers have tested positive for the virus. Prosecutors have expressed concern for the public safety over the release of some inmates. According to mayor deBlasio, more than 650 inmates have been released, mostly those with health risks making them vulnerable to the virus, those jailed on parole or probation violations and those charged with nonviolent offenses. Prosecutors claim that some inmates under review for release at the city’s urging are charged or convicted of domestic violence or sex offenses, leaving them worried for victims. Public perception of the jail’s ability to handle the pandemic is also a concern. According to a report by the Legal Aid Society, the virus is spreading within the jail at the rate of about 3.6 percent. While Rikers Island has been following CDC guidelines (long before and as the outbreak happened), infections at the jail have grown quickly. Nearly 800 inmates have been quarantined but the thousands that remain are physically incapable of social distancing like free people. In Texas, the state’s largest jail in Harris County recorded its first case of coronavirus on March 29th. Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning the release on personal bonds of any person charged with a violent crime or with a violent crime on their record. With respect to the federal prison system, Attorney General Barr asked prison officials to assess older inmates and those with health problems for home confinement. The first federal prisoner who died of coronavirus had been serving a 27-year sentence in a Louisiana prison for possession of crack cocaine for sale too close to a school.

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