COVID is running riot at Rikers, city’s Department of Corrections outgoing chief warns

The COVID-19 infection rate at the troubled Rikers Island jail is rising at an alarming daily rate among largely unvaccinated inmates amid a citywide surge, the city Department of Corrections commissioner warns.

In a letter Tuesday to public defenders obtained by investigators, outgoing commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said the COVID infection rate among inmates nearly doubled overnight.

“Our COVID positivity rate was consistently hovering at approximately 1%. Yesterday it was 9.5%,” Schiraldi wrote in the leaked letter. “Today it is over 17%.”

“The risks to the human beings in our custody are at a crisis level,” the commissioner wrote.

Rikers Island
Rikers Island (Seth Wenig/AP)

The disturbing document comes as the new COVID omicron strain overtakes delta in the city. According to Schiraldi, the rise is more worrisome at the lockup since “only 45% of our incarcerated population has received one shot of the vaccine, and only 38% is fully vaccinated.”

The stunning letter also says city DOC efforts to cope with the COVID crisis may have come to nothing.

“Considerable efforts were made at the beginning of the pandemic to reduce the jail population immediately in order to avert a major humanitarian catastrophe,” Schiraldi wrote. “All indications suggest that our jail population faces an equal or greater level of risk from COVID now as it did at the start of the pandemic.”

Rikers has now gone into a new level of lockdown, with in-person visits and religious services halted in response to the rise in COVID cases.

“We are doing what we can to limit the spread of Omicron,” Schiraldi wrote. “Sadly, that includes the suspension of congregate services and in-person visitation, additional movement protocols for individuals who may have been exposed to COVID, and reductions in programming.”

The one page missive was addressed to “the Defender Community” but the message was for everyone at the bar.

“It’s my understanding this was sent to judges, prosecutors and defenders,” said a legal source.

In recent months, Rikers has been plagued by high absenteeism among corrections officers.

“It is pretty disturbing,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defenders Services. “It sounds like a plea for help.”

But she puts part of the blame on high bails.

According to Schreibersdorf, district attorneys and judges are “saying they are doing all they can, but the DAs are still asking for high bails on cases where they don’t need to and judges are setting higher bails where people can’t get out.”

“I hope they heed this undeniable warning,” she said.

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