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Local Jails Increase Density Levels as NYC Braces for Second Wave of COVID-19

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, New York County Defender Services and Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem recently obtained data via a Legal Aid Society Freedom of Information Law request which revealed that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) has been operating housing units at Rikers Island and other local jails at a population density that makes physical distancing virtually impossible, endangering the lives of thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers and DOC staff alike as New York City braces for a second wave of COVID-19, reports the New York Daily News.

Despite DOC’s COVID-19 plan which states that “[a] majority of the dormitory housing areas are below 50% capacity and close to half of all housing areas department-wide are also operating at or below 50% capacity” and assurances by DOC leadership at a hearing before the New York State Senate on September 22, 2020 that DOC “will continue to make sure that we do not have the housing capacity of each housing area over 50% so that we can achieve the social distancing,” this FOIL disclosure shows that many dorm units and cell units are operating well above 50 percent of capacity, with some dorm units as high as 100 percent full as of November 2, 2020.

For example, as of November 2, 2020:

  • In AMKC, where most dorms hold approximately 50 people, eighteen dorms were at or above 90% density. Two were at 100%.
  • In VCBC, where each dorm holds 50 people, every single dorm was at 75% density or higher. Eight of the fourteen dorms were above 90%, and four were at 98%.
  • In RNDC, where each modular dorm holds between 30 and 48 people, four of the eleven dorms were above 75%. One dorm was at 97%.

“This data…shows that DOC is in flagrant disregard of the most basic public health guidance, which jeopardizes both our clients in the jails and the broader community. As experts everywhere are warning us to brace for a resurgence of the virus and the jail population climbs increasingly upward, the department continues to crowd people into poorly-ventilated units [and] in close quarters,” said Kayla Simpson, a staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society. “The city is failing people in the jails, and none of us should accept these practices or the city’s efforts to hide them.”