The Jail Crisis

Riker's Island has been devastated by Covid-19, but getting out is just the beginning

Russell Morse
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

Early in the outbreak, on the day Dr. Ross MacDonald, the head of Correctional Health Services in New York City, warned that a COVID-19 “storm” was coming to New York City jails, I went to Rikers Island to visit Ms. Mendez, a client of mine (some names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy). Ms. Mendez, who had been at Rikers for months, had a health condition that made her vulnerable to infection. I needed her to sign a release authorizing me to get her medical records so I could try to get her out of jail before she contracted the virus.

As part of my work for a Manhattan public defender’s office, I go to Rikers at least once a week to interview clients to help me prepare biographies for the court. Our clients are war refugees, chess champions, and Ivy League dropouts. Many have histories of mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, and severe trauma. Most live in poverty, many are homeless, and the vast majority are Black and Latino. The details of my clients’ lives help provide context for why they’re in the system. Sometimes the narratives I prepare result in a better outcome: drug treatment, mental health support, twenty-five years instead of life. Just as often, they don’t.

Since the start of the outbreak, we have focused our efforts on securing the release of medically vulnerable people. We identify which clients are at risk, obtain medical records to verify our claim, and schedule court appearances to request their release.

Even before McDonald’s urgent plea, my colleagues and I knew that Rikers would be the epicenter of the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. Jails are practically designed to allow infectious diseases to flourish: people live in close quarters with no protective equipment, inadequate health care, and shared facilities. McDonald compared Rikers to a “cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each week.” Throughout the crisis, we have watched the infection rate climb until it reached its peak: one in ten people infected. That’s 10 percent. The infection rate for New York City as a whole, even at its worst, was 2 percent.

Like most of my colleagues, I do this work because I believe that mass incarceration is the most pressing issue of our time. And I came to it because I am a formerly incarcerated person: I know this system’s dangers and horrors because I spent years of my life living in these institutions.

Our office’s mission is to provide holistic defense, which means, in part, that we provide each client with a social worker to help that client address the root causes—usually addiction, mental illness, and/or unemployment—of his or her entry into the system. Our clients’ struggles are not over once they resolve a criminal case; we try to connect them to support services so they can get the help they need and avoid future arrests. Holistic defense was a revolutionary idea when it was introduced, but it has caught on, and many public defender practices now employ social workers.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the task of getting people out of jail was exciting: we prepared bail applications on the fly, gathered medical records and data about the infection rate at Rikers, and fought to get people released. Some of our clients have gotten out; others have not. (One judge, appearing on Skype in a cardigan against the backdrop of his home library, denied our application, saying, “It seems like they have things pretty well under control at Rikers.” On the day of that hearing, the infection rate in New York City jails was more than 8 percent, with 334 known cases.) But even when we got them out, we realized, there was no longer anywhere for them to go.

As the corrections officer scribbled my name in a tattered visitors’ log, I watched a coyote stroll along the road to the bridge, stopping to urinate on the “Welcome to Rikers Island” sign before ducking back into the bushes.

The coyotes showed up a few years ago. Unlike everyone else at Rikers, they move freely back and forth over the Rikers Island Bridge, usually in search of food. Some of the corrections officers feed them scraps when they see them in the parking lot: Styrofoam containers of pork-fried rice and pizza crusts. There used to be a colony of feral cats at Rikers, and the officers would put out food and water for them, too. Since the coyotes showed up, though, I haven’t seen many feral cats.

The officer slid me a laminated pass for my car through the metal drawer. The air was thick with the scent of fake tropical fruit. The bungalow is next to a waste-processing plant, so the officers burn scented candles in their cramped office—glass drums of crème brûlée, island breeze, and mango pineapple—to mask the smell of raw sewage.

That day in mid-March there were already seventy-five known cases of COVID-19 at Rikers, but this information hadn’t reached the world beyond the institution. All we knew was that a few corrections officers had tested positive. Nobody in my office had tried to visit a client at Rikers since the start of the outbreak.

“Is there any restriction on counsel visits because of the virus?” I asked.

Scanning my paperwork, the officer shrugged. “Not that I know of, but they don’t tell us anything.”

He handed my documents back and smiled. “Be safe.”

Ms. Mendez is a forty-six-year-old woman who grew up on the Lower East Side. When I saw her in the visit booth, she wasn’t wearing any protective gear. I could hardly hear her through the thick glass, so I raised my voice to tell her that we were trying to get her out because her medical condition put her at an elevated risk of death if she contracted the virus. She was living at the Rose M. Singer Center (the women’s jail at Rikers, familiarly known as “Rosie’s”), in an open dorm with dozens of other women, all sleeping a few feet from each other.

“Good,” she exhaled, putting her long black hair up in a bun. “This building is infected. My old unit was shut down because a lot of the girls in there were sick. There’s a girl in quarantine now; I used to sleep next to her in the dorm.”

I asked Ms. Mendez to tell me about her life so that I could write a biography for the court. She told me that she grew up in public housing on Delancey Street with an abusive, alcoholic father, but that she had liked school, and she was the first in her family to go to college.

“I studied child psychology because I was a sad kid and I wanted to know why life was the way it was and why people acted the way they did.”

After graduation, she worked for the city as a caseworker, helping people with HIV find housing. In her twenties, she got into a relationship with an abusive, controlling man who followed her to and from work every day and beat her every night. At age thirty, worn down by the relationship, she started using cocaine and heroin after a friend introduced her to the drugs.

“Ever since then, the handcuffs never came off.” She held her arms up with her wrists pressed together and shrugged.

She signed a release so that I could request her medical records. Before I left, I told her that we would do our best to get her out.

“You’d better hurry,” she said. “It’s getting worse in here every day.”

I boarded the corrections bus for the parking lot. A static-filled version of “We Are the Champions” blasted through the speakers as we raced through stop signs. (Rikers bus drivers always run the stop signs.)

On the drive to the parking garage, I got a call from Andre, a client who’d just been released from Rikers. He’d been street homeless for years, ever since he aged out of foster care, and he has a serious mental illness. He was calling because he had gone to a resource center for people with mental illness after he was released, only to learn that it was closed indefinitely due to the outbreak. He wanted to know where he could go. I didn’t have an answer for him. The consistent messaging during this crisis has been that the best thing everybody can do is stay home. The closest thing to a home André has is the Ancient History section at the Strand Bookstore, where he sits and reads for hours every night. The only homeless resource I knew that was open during the crisis was the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, so I reluctantly suggested he go there.

One week later, Ms. Mendez was released from Rikers in the middle of the night with a Metrocard and a winter coat. I don’t know how she is doing now.

The halls of the Manhattan criminal courthouse, usually a hive of confusion and chatter, were silent and empty the day I went to fetch my client Ms. Beckett. All nonessential functions of the court were suspended until further notice. A small sixty-year-old woman with a hunched back and a shock of white hair who had been approved for residential drug treatment, Ms. Beckett was scheduled to be released to her program that day. We had no way of knowing whether getting a sixty-year-old mentally ill woman out of Rikers in the midst of a pandemic was considered essential. Nobody we asked seemed to know, either.

My job was to appear before the judge and state that I would escort Ms. Beckett to her drug program directly from court. I met my supervisor outside the courtroom before we went in.

“I have to ask you,” she said, “do you feel comfortable doing this?”

I knew what my supervisor was asking me. Ms. Beckett was coming from Rosie’s, which already had several confirmed cases of COVID-19; it was very likely that she had contacted the virus. If I said no, she wouldn’t be released. I nodded, and we walked into the courtroom together.

After the judge agreed to her release, I went to the first floor of the courthouse to wait for her. An hour later, the officer stepped from behind the bulletproof glass and called to me down the hall. “They’re releasing her now,” she yelled. “But not through here. You have to go in the back where the buses are.” The back of the courthouse is a loading dock where court employees take quick smoke breaks; it was obvious that the corrections officers wanted to have as little contact with Ms. Beckett as possible.

As I waited, the dented metal door opened, and a young man wearing khaki jail clothes walked out with his arms outstretched and his head facing the sky. He got down on his knees in the rain and kissed the sidewalk, then stood back up. He looked around for a minute, as if he didn’t know where to go next. With the ceremony over, he jogged down the middle of an empty street into Chinatown.

Moments later, Ms. Beckett walked out, smiling when she saw me. She was carrying two large, clear garbage bags, full of her belongings from Rikers: books, clothes, paperwork, and dozens of small bags of Cheetos and Bumble Bee tuna from the commissary.

“Can you help me with one of these bags?” she asked. “I told them I wasn’t leaving Rikers without my stuff.”

The bag was heavier than I expected. I scanned the contents through the plastic: romance novels, a few letters, socks and underwear, bottles of shampoo and conditioner. She had spent so much time at Rikers that she had started to make a life there, collecting necessities where she could, and she didn’t know when or how she would be able to replace these precious items once she was released.

It was early in the pandemic, long before we were all wearing masks and gloves and staying several feet apart. I had no protective gear, and neither did Ms. Beckett. I knew we’d be spending the day together in cars and waiting rooms, so I resigned myself to whatever might come of it.

She thanked me as I hoisted the bag. “Now, let’s go get some cigarettes.”

Ms. Beckett looks older than she is—she’s frail and her dark, weathered face is framed by wiry white eyebrows—but she hoisted the second bag effortlessly over her shoulder, leading the way to the deli around the corner. The man behind the counter wore a mask, still a rare sight at the time, and handed me a pack of Newports and a lighter for her.

In the car, I called the people at the drug program to let them know we were on our way. The intake person on the phone interrupted me to say, “As of this morning, because of the public health crisis, we are no longer accepting new clients.”

I tried to bargain, but it was clear that the order had come from above. Several agencies had already stopped accepting clients from Rikers as a precaution. I hung up the phone and told Ms. Beckett we couldn’t go to Samaritan Village.

“Well, I’m not going back to Rikers!” She shook her head and raised her eyebrows, nervously fumbling with her bags, which she had refused to place in the trunk.

I explained that this wasn’t going to happen, but that we did need to make a plan for her: a place to stay, a different program to go to, and a way to get her mental health medication. She said she could stay with her mother, so we headed there first.

Ms. Beckett’s mother lives on the top floor of a public housing building in Harlem. Her nephew, clearly not expecting any visitors, answered the door. Ms. Beckett rushed inside without saying hi, still toting her garbage bag, and I followed her with the other bag.

The apartment was dark and stuffy, and a dog barked from the back room. I followed Ms. Beckett into a cluttered bedroom, where her mother—a smaller, frailer woman in oversized pajamas—was sitting on the side of the bed next to an open container of Chinese food. Ms. Beckett put her bag down and hugged her mom, who slowly lifted her arm to return the hug.

“I’ll be right back, mama.”

Though she had been in jail for months, and nobody was expecting to see her that morning, she didn’t linger for a reunion because she was afraid of being returned to Rikers. Once her bags were down, we left the apartment.

I was surprised and sad that she hadn’t stayed to spend time with her mother and nephew, or even to sit on the couch and put her feet up. Her only priority was following through on the requirements of the court.

We drove to the sole outpatient program I could find that was still accepting clients from Rikers. It happened to be on a block in Harlem where Ms. Beckett had lived for years. “That was my window right there on the ground floor,” she said, as she pointed to the projects across the street. “And that building right there, I watched my cousin jump out the window on the tenth floor. He landed right here.” I looked down as we walked past the spot. She was unfazed, leading us around the corner to the entrance of the program office.

A woman with long braids at the program office’s front desk handed Ms. Beckett a clipboard, then called upstairs to their billing department. After a short conversation, she hung up the phone and looked at me, shaking her head.

“Her Medicaid won’t cover outpatient treatment, so we can’t take her.”

When people are incarcerated, they lose their Medicaid coverage, and it has to be reactivated after they’re released—a bureaucratic mess in the best of times. We walked back to the car and headed to the Medicaid office. Ms. Beckett was undaunted by the rejection and had already shifted her focus to the next hurdle.

As we drove through Harlem, she was shocked at how many people were in the streets.

“Don’t they know there’s a virus out here?”

At Rikers, she’d watched the news every night and knew more about the pandemic than I did. She shook her head.

“Some people don’t think shit stinks until you hit ’em in the face with it.”

We arrived at the benefits office to find the doors locked. A notice on the glass informed us that the office was closed due to the pandemic. People were advised to call an 800 number. In the car, we waited on hold for nearly an hour.

I wasn’t sure how much more I could do to help Ms. Beckett, but it didn’t feel right to just leave her at her mother’s house with the 800 number and let her keep calling until she got through. I wanted to see the day all the way through with her, but I knew we had more dead ends ahead of us and a limited amount of time.

Even if we couldn’t get her Medicaid sorted out that day, Ms. Beckett needed her mental health medication. In the past, she’d gone to Harlem Hospital, where they called in her prescriptions to a pharmacy. But she’d never tried to do that in the midst of a pandemic.

The doors to Harlem Hospital were blocked; out front, a group of health care professionals in masks, hoods, and gowns asked people what they had come for. Ms. Beckett told them she needed her psychiatric meds, and they gave her a flyer with another 800 number on it.

Ms. Beckett registered neither surprise nor dismay. She thanked the woman who handed her the flyer, folded it, and put it in her pocket. She told me she had some old medication at her mom’s house, so I gave her a ride back.

It was late in the day. I told her to call the 800 numbers and that I would work on getting things straightened out with the courts. She thanked me for the cigarettes before getting out of the car and running across the street into her mother’s building.

Weeks after her release, Ms. Beckett called to tell me that she hadn’t received her Social Security check. Those benefits are also deactivated when a person is placed in custody, and she couldn’t reach anyone via the phone to reactivate them. Social Security (SSI) is her only source of income, and she told me she didn’t have money for food or toiletries. I told her I would try to find a way to help her.

Two days later, she was arrested for shoplifting at a drugstore near her home.

After years of doing this work, I am accustomed to the disappointment that comes with a client’s re-arrest. But this felt different. Ms. Beckett had tried to do everything she was asked to do. She had complied with her remote treatment requirements, called social services every day, taken her mental health medication, and not used drugs. She was arrested because the government agency that provided her only source of income didn’t have a crisis plan in place to help the people who depended on them. I don’t know what Ms. Beckett was accused of stealing, but I imagine it was something similar to the items in her Rikers garbage bag: snacks, toiletries, maybe a romance novel.

A few days later
, a client named Mr. Bey called me. In January, while at Rikers for a parole violation, he’d had emergency spinal surgery. His doctors said he was lucky to be alive, and it would be a miracle if he walked again. We’d been working to find a nursing home for him so he could recover from his surgery somewhere other than Rikers. Although we know now that Mr. Bey was lucky that nursing homes don’t like to take people from jail, unfortunately, this meant that he had to recover in the infirmary at Rikers, which is where many of the early COVID-19 patients at the jail were housed.

In normal times, the infirmary (NIC, or Northern Infirmary Command) is quiet. I had a client who broke his ankle playing basketball at Rikers one summer, and he preferred NIC because it had fewer fights and it’s the only building at Rikers with air conditioning. But in the early days of the pandemic it became overcrowded as jail administrators made a panicked plan to isolate (and concentrate) people who were infected. Mr. Bey had to speak loudly to be heard over the yelling in the background.

I could hear the panic in his voice. I naively asked him what it was like in the infirmary.

“Fear, chaos, confusion, pandemonium!” he said, his voice urgent. He was surrounded by people with flu-like symptoms all day, he told me, sharing a small bathroom and one phone, with no protective gear or hand sanitizer. He was convinced that he would die, but he was so desperate to talk to us that he risked using the phone.

The first Rikers COVID fatality, Michael Tyson, was a man in his fifties who was jailed for failing to report to his parole officer, a minor infraction similar to the reason for Mr. Bey’s incarceration. His death came a week after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state agency that oversees parole would release low-level violators in the interest of public health. Mr. Tyson’s release was held up by the review process, and he died shortly after being moved to the Bellevue Prison Ward.

Mr. Bey’s release was held up for similar reasons. The courts were willing to let him serve his sentence in the community, provided that he had a reentry plan. I worked to present a plan to the judge, prosecutor, and representatives from the parole board. He would live with his cousin in the Bronx, report to a parole officer regularly, and engage in substance abuse treatment. We were able to make a convincing pitch, and Mr. Bey was scheduled for release.

Mr. Bey got out in late April, on the day the infection rate at Rikers passed 10 percent, and called me from a LINK NYC phone. I thought he was calling to share his relief at being released; instead, he told me he’d just come from Bellevue Men’s Shelter. He was more agitated than when he called me from Rikers.

“It’s worse than Rikers in there! They had us all in the same waiting room with no masks, no nothing; people were smoking crack and K2 while they waited!”

His parole officer hadn’t let him stay at his cousin’s house because the officer hadn’t performed a site visit yet. Instead, he sent Mr. Bey to Bellevue Men’s Shelter, the processing center for all the city’s homeless services. Even in normal times, I am reluctant to send clients to Bellevue Men’s Shelter, a dumping ground for people the system has failed their entire lives: mentally ill, drug addicted, destitute men who have run out of all other options. It is a violent, cramped sorting office where men wait to be sent out to other violent, cramped places (most of them on Wards Island). Bellevue Men’s Shelter was unsanitary before the virus. I can only imagine what Mr. Bey walked into that day.

I asked him if they were doing anything to keep people safe.

“Let’s be serious,” he told me. “Hell no, they’re not keeping people safe here.”

Mr. Bey returned to Bellevue Men’s Shelter the next day because he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. They placed him in another shelter in the Bronx and just as he was settling in there, inspectors came and found that the conditions (crowded rooms, shared facilities) were unsafe. Mr. Bey and the other men in his shelter were moved to a hotel downtown. Since then, he’s been doing well: he found a full-time job working as a porter, and when we talk he is brimming with gratitude and optimism. But Mr. Bey is doing well because he’s a resilient person, not because of anything the system did for him.

Like most of my clients, Mr. Bey has been failed by the system at every turn. While thousands of people were getting sick and dying, the system did what it’s always done: ignored the needs of the most vulnerable among us. In a time of crisis, they have remained our lowest priority.

Russell Morse is a writer and public defender based in New York City. As a journalist, he has covered youth uprisings in France, juvenile justice reform in California, issues along the US/Mexico border and three presidential elections. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Criminal Justice for his prison reform work in New York State.
Originally published:
June 23, 2020


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