NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – The coronavirus spread rapidly through New York City, even more so at Rikers Island and other jails, according to Legal Aid Society.
The organization says the infection rate at local jails is more than seven times higher than the rate citywide and 87 times higher than the country at large.
— Molly Griffard (@MollyGriffard) March 24, 2020
“Based on this analysis, New York City jails have become the epicenter of COVID-19. It is imperative that Albany, City Hall, our local District Attorneys and the NYPD take swift and bold action to mitigate the spread of this deadly virus,” Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “Stop sending people to Rikers and let these New Yorkers out immediately. Anything else is too little, too late.”
The organization warned if the pandemic continues at this pace, the entire local jail population will be infected within a matter of weeks.
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Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city is working to identify which inmates are eligible for release either because of health conditions or because their charges were minor. He said he believes anyone with five underlying conditions or who’s over the age of 70 shouldn’t be held in the jail system during the crisis.
“We have to work through some very intense, complicated legal issues, case by case in the case of those individuals,” the mayor said Tuesday. “But that category of people, those in immediate danger because of the specific nature of coronavirus, I strongly believe they all should be released.”
At a briefing Thursday afternoon, de Blasio said 200 inmates have been released so far and an additional 175 inmates were scheduled to be released by Thursday night.
De Blasio also said with the release of these inmates, the population in the city’s jail system went below 5,000 inmates for the first time since 1949.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is among those who have renewed calls to lower the jail population by halting the arrest of low-level offenders and releasing inmates who are most susceptible to infection.
“Our leaders are taking too long to act decisively, especially for most vulnerable New Yorkers,” he tweeted earlier this week. “In this case Rikers is allowed to be a petri dish for those housed & working there alike.”
Our leaders are taking too long to act decisively, especially for most vulnerable New Yorkers
In this case Rikers is allowed to be a petri dish for those housed & working there alike
— Jumaane Williams (@JumaaneWilliams) March 24, 2020
Board of Correction Interim Chairwoman Jacqueline Sherman pushed for the release of more than 2,000 people in custody in city jails, including those over 50 years old, those with health conditions such as lung and heart disease, those being held for parole violations such as missing a curfew, and those serving sentences of less than a year.
“Fewer people in the jails will save lives and minimize transmission among people in custody as well as staff,” she wrote in a letter to New York’s criminal justice leaders over the weekend. “Failure to drastically reduce the jail population threatens to overwhelm the City jails’ healthcare system as well its basic operations.”
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New York State Senator Luis Sepúlveda and Assemblyman David Wepin wrote to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last Thursday, asking him to convene an emergency committee to review all state prison inmates for possible early release.
In addition to those at high risk of infection and non-violent offenders within three years of their release date, they said individuals convicted of violent crimes with just one year left should also be considered.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)