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March 18, 2021

 CONTACT: Daniel Ball, dball@bds.org




Defenders Renew Call to Decarcerate and Expand Vaccine Access to Include All Incarcerated People

(Brooklyn, NY) – Kelsey De Avila, Jail Services Project Director at Brooklyn Defender Services released the following statement on the anniversary of the first reported COVID-19 case in New York City jails: 

“One year ago today, the first person incarcerated in a New York City jail tested positive for COVID-19.  In weeks preceding that milestone, we joined with 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. Now, thousands of incarcerated people have contracted the virus and dozens have died. One year later, the situation is not any better. 

Each day, we hear from people incarcerated at Rikers, who report dangerous conditions. People are in units at maximum capacity where social distancing is impossible. Masks are scarce or not provided at all. Families have gone a year without hugging their loved ones in custody, only exacerbating the harms of isolation. People are missing family video visits, legal visits and video court appearances, which are a crucial opportunity to advocate for their freedom. People are wearing the same underwear for weeks, even months at a time because they are receiving only one pair, and given no opportunities to have their clothes washed. People are scared. People are isolated. People are not safe.   

The jail population is now increasing by about a hundred people each week. There are over 5,000 people incarcerated at Rikers, compared to 3,800 at the end of last April. Of those, 73% are being held pre-trial. Over half have Brad H. status, the designation given for people living with mental illness. Nearly 300 people are incarcerated in city jails on alleged technical parole violations, the highest number since last April. 

At two Board of Correction (the New York City jails oversight body) meetings this year, the Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann was asked what the DOC was doing to keep 50% capacity to ensure social distancing in jails. Her response is: ‘Though it’s ideal for social distancing, we cannot do that.’ The Commissioner has admitted that the DOC cannot protect people in its custody nor fulfill their basic responsibility to those in its care.  The Board of Corrections’ recent bombshell report on COVID deaths in NYC jails affirms that sentiment. 

Decarceration is the most effective way to keep people involved with the criminal legal system safe during the pandemic. Yet while health experts have called for releasing incarcerated people for their own safety since the beginning of the pandemic, the NYPD and its spokespeople have fear-mongered and spread lies about the dangers these lifesaving measures would pose to public safety—a stance contrary to both available data and the reality that incarcerated people are also members of the public whose fates are inextricably linked to the wellbeing of their communities, families, and loved ones. Repeatedly, and even as recently as Tuesday, the Police Commissioner and other members of the NYPD have spread disinformation about the impact of releasing people from jail on crime rates. Tragically, the City has largely opted to pander to the police and these falsehoods than to follow the science and all available evidence and to take actions mandated by compassion. The Mayor, the Governor, the District Attorneys, and the courts have not responded with the type of broad-scale decarceration that is required to keep people safe. 

We need urgent action from New York leaders.  Elected officials have begun touring New York’s prisons and jails to see firsthand how facilities are handling the pandemic and we encourage any and all to use their power to visit Rikers. Lawmakers should prioritize efforts to decarcerate, from fighting further rollbacks to bail reform to enacting legislation that reduces incarceration, like Elder Parole, Fair and Timely Parole, and the Less is More Act. District Attorneys and Judges should stop seeking bail and putting people at Rikers pre-trial. The State must expand vaccine access to incarcerated people, beyond those 60 and up. Every incarcerated person is at risk of COVID, no matter their age. 

In normal circumstances, incarceration is dehumanizing and deadly. The pandemic has laid this fact bare, and people in power must act.”