First Reported Case of Coronavirus at Rikers Jail Complex

The only acceptable response to COVID-19 in jails, prisons, and other detainment facilities is complete decarceration and a plan to “Free Them All for Public Health”

For Immediate Release: Thursday, March 19, 2020

Media Contact:

New York, New York, March 19, 2020 — Officials confirmed on Wednesday that a person inside Rikers has been diagnosed with COVID-19 (Coronavirus) — the first reported case of a person in New York City custody testing positive for the virus. As confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, we know this will not be the last incarcerated person to contract the illness. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city intends to release people with underlying medical issues, including those with pre-existing conditions, in order to stem the effect of COVID-19 inside Rikers, but this is not enough. 

The only acceptable response to COVID-19 is complete decarceration and a plan to “Free Them All for Public Health.” Releasing people from jail, prison, and immigration detention to their chosen homes and communities and preventing more people from being incarcerated is the best possible protection against the deadly spread of COVID-19, not only among incarcerated people, but among their communities and families as well. If leaders in this city are serious about doing their best to “flatten the curve,” DeBlasio and the city council must take immediate action to close all city jails, release everyone currently incarcerated, and give people the resources they need to stay outside. 

Rikers must be closed immediately, not in 2026 per City Council’s potentially-unenforceable “Land Use” Amendment vote. Rikers has always posed a deadly risk for those incarcerated there, and the worsening COVID-19 outbreak will only exacerbate this risk. The city must cease its plan to use $11 billion to build four new jails, and instead invest that money in the healthcare, housing, education, and transformative justice programs that will actually keep New Yorkers safe, healthy, and in their communities. 

Jails have always been a public health crisis. They do not keep people safe. We know that the conditions of confinement, lack of access to medical care, and the structural violence and vulnerability produced by policing and incarceration make healthy people sick — and put all people subjected to them at risk of serious illness or death due to COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic has only illuminated what has been true all along: policing and incarceration kill.

Criminalized and incarcerated people are our loved ones and community members. Their health and wellbeing impacts our collective health. Policing and jailing make our families, neighborhoods, and social well-being less secure. In these demands, we join other groups, advocates, and incarcerated people and their loved ones, as a coalition across the United States. 

This coalition has clearly and forcefully called for: reducing policing, dismissing prosecution, closing courts and suspending court appointments, suspending probation and parole check-ins, reducing jail admissions, releasing people detained pretrial and serving short sentences in jail; releasing people from immigration detention and suspending ICE check-ins, and releasing people from prison. These groups include: The Abolitionist Law Center, African Services Committee, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Chicago Community Bail Fund, Critical Resistance, Communities United for Police Reform, CURB Prisons, Detention Watch, Families for Freedom, Families for Justice as Healing, Immigrant Defense Project, LatinoJusticePRLDEF, The Legal Aid Society, Make the Road New York, Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, New Sanctuary Coalition, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York County Defender Services, New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, New York Immigration Coalition, Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Office of the Appellate Defender, Moms United Against Violence & Incarceration, National Bail Fund Network, the National Association of Immigration Judges, Queens Defenders, Sunset Park ICE Watch, Queer Detainee Empowerment Project , Survived & Punished, and even a coalition of prosecutors.

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