177 Livingston Street 7th Floor Brooklyn, NY 11201 (718) 254-0700 info@bds.org



March 26, 2020


CONTACT: Daniel Ball, dball@bds.org





BDS Renews Call to Release Incarcerated People and Halt New Admissions to NYC Jails; Condemns Dangerous Jail Conditions

(BROOKLYN, NY) – Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, released the following statement in response to reports that 75 incarcerated people and 45 NYC jails staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and numerous accounts from our clients of disturbing and dangerous conditions inside of the jails:

“For weeks, we have joined defenders, advocates, incarcerated people, medical professionals, and elected officials to warn of the grave risks that an outbreak of COVID-19 in jails and prisons poses to incarcerated people, staff, and all New Yorkers. As the virus spreads like wildfire through Rikers Island, we worry that every hour that passes brings us closer to disaster and death, whether inside the facilities or shortly after release. Given the extremely high infection rate in jails to date, we fear that no one in the jails — whether incarcerated people or staff — is safe. Too few have been released thus far and too slowly. Elected officials at every level of government must take immediate action to initiate mass release and halt new admissions before it is too late.” 

Brooklyn Defender Services’ clients incarcerated at the jail facilities at Rikers Island have reported many concerns about the lack of medical attention, lack of hygiene products, isolation, squalid living conditions, and other disturbing reports of mistreatment, including:

  • Overflowing sewage running through a housing unit, which continued to house people before, during, and after the incident. In addition to the general inhabitability of these conditions, COVID-19 is believed to spread through fecal matter;
  • Squalid conditions, including units that have not been sanitized, and staff who refuse to clean out of concern for their own exposure to COVID-19;
  • Being turned away from the medical unit due to lack of available appointments;
  • Requests for  medical attention (also known as “sick calls”) for people who cannot leave their cells going unanswered for as long as two weeks;
  • Symptomatic people not being tested for COVID-19 or having their temperature checked;
  • Housing sick people who have not been confirmed to have COVID-19, as well as with people who are considered “high risk” due to underlying health issues, in close proximity to people with confirmed cases in newly reopened housing units;
  • Placing sick people in solitary confinement in lieu of medical treatment for the duration of their symptoms;
  • No precautions taken for people who were regularly in contact with a guard who is believed to have COVID-19 –even while people in that unit are now symptomatic;
  • Phones are not being sanitized between use, and people who request supplies to sanitize the phones themselves are being told that none are available;
  • People exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms may be provided one single-use face mask by medical staff before being sent back to their housing units without being tested, only to have those masks confiscated by guards upon their return to their units;
  • Sick people preparing food for general consumption;
  • No masks provided to people preparing food and food being served on dirty trays;
  • Soap is unavailable, both because it is not being provided or replaced in the communal bathrooms and because it is sold out at commissary;
  • Sleeping in communal dorms of roughly 50 people less than two feet apart from one another
  • Guards who are coughing at work and failing to take precautions to protect the people they have contact with;
  • And a general panic, among both incarcerated people and staff, as this dangerous situation quickly escalates.

Incarceration is devastating to personal and public health under normal circumstances, and inadequate access to medical care has long been and continues to be a concern for incarcerated people. This pandemic raises the stakes, as jails are uniquely poor environments for stopping or containing viral outbreaks. Jail medical personnel have made this clear: the only way to truly protect people is to release them.


  1. Mayor de Blasio’s proposed release of some people serving sentences of under one year from Rikers Island is helpful, but there are hundreds more who are not being released at this time who also deserve to stay healthy and be with their families during this unprecedented crisis. 
  2. More must be done to assess and immediately release individuals being held pretrial who are at grave risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19.
  3. Defense attorneys must be given access to their clients through phone, video or other methods so we can advocate for individuals with medical and other needs.
  4. Governor Cuomo and the state legislature must leave our bail laws intact. Certainly, now is not the time to consider measures to increase the jail population, just as we have already reduced the total number of people in jails across the state by nearly 7,000 and reduced the number of older people in Rikers by nearly half. 
  5. Governor Cuomo must use his staff resources to expedite and issue clemency for older, sick, and pregnant people and to order the release of all people detained on technical parole violations at Rikers and other local jails.
  6. Governor Cuomo must revise the emergency Executive Order that suspends due process requirements and is causing individuals to stay in jail even when the charges might otherwise be dropped.