Advocates call for release of detainees in DOC custody as COVID numbers climb

New York City’s Department of Correction commissioner and public defenders called for the immediate release of Rikers Island and other DOC facility detainees in a joint letter.

Brooklyn detention complex

Brooklyn detention complex John Penney/Shutterstock

A joint letter from the New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi and city public defenders is calling for the release of detainees in DOC custody in response to COVID-19 cases doubling within 24 hours. 

"Until ten days ago, for the past several months our COVID positivity rate was consistently hovering at approximately 1%. Yesterday it was 9.5%. Today it is over 17%," the letter said.

In addition to the skyrocketing COVID-19 rates, only 38% of incarcerated people in DOC custody are fully vaccinated.

To curb the spread of the virus, the DOC announced the suspension of in-person visitations, congregate programs and religious services, yesterday. 

“It is extremely difficult for all of us to take these measures,” Schiraldi said in a statement. “The city has done an extraordinary job of keeping COVID at bay in our facilities and minimizing loss of life due to the pandemic, but Omicron represents a new challenge. We are taking these precautions once again because we know that they work and that they will make everyone safer. Thank goodness the Mayor required all staff and vendors to be vaccinated, as that adds considerable protection for them.”

The suspension of services and programs in DOC facilities has advocates concerned about the mental health of detainees.

“The loss of services, not to mention visits with family, friends, and loved ones, exacts an enormous emotional and psychological toll on people already isolated and held in horrific conditions. The potential harm caused by the loss of such services, programming, and social contact, coupled with the fear of the rising spread of COVID, cannot be overstated.” Ann Mathews, managing director of criminal defense practice at The Bronx Defenders, told NYN Media.

In place of in-person visits, the DOC will be offering “tele-vists” five days a week. DOC staff will be working with program providers to distribute self-guided materials and activities through tablets or printed packets in place of regular programming. Religious materials will also be available on the tablets and chaplains will be using their discretion to continue in-person faith-based services. 

Schiraldi and advocates believe it is not enough to suspend services – they also want to explore ways to release detainees through supervised releases or compassionate releases for those who have underlying medical conditions.

“I implore you to ask the courts to similarly consider every available option to reduce the number of individuals in our jail,” the letter from Schiraldi and public defenders said. “Whether that means seeking supervised release in more cases or identifying cases that can be resolved with modifications to sentence length or requesting compassionate release for individuals who are at higher risk due to underlying medical conditions, I leave to your professional judgment.”

Advocates also argue that prosecutors, judges, and elected officials need to work together to ensure the health and safety of incarcerated people. 

“As we have seen at the beginning of the pandemic, it is possible to quickly release people from the city's jails. In April 2020, the NYC reduced the population of people held in DOC custody down to about 3,800. The City did it before and can do it again.” Mathews said. “If the City does not dramatically reduce the number of people in its custody, we fear that we will not only see COVID spread like wildfire within DOC facilities, but we will also see a continued overall deterioration in conditions in the city's jails, conditions that are already at inhumane and life-threatening levels.”