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“This Feels Like a Death Sentence”: Rikers Jail Inmates Speak Out As Coronavirus Cases Spread

Bond your loved ones out of jail now, what happening in the New York jail could happen here next.

Inside a maximum-security building at the Rikers Island jail complex, Haleen, a 28-year-old man incarcerated on a parole violation, wishes he had an inhaler.

bondout of jail

At one point this week, the coronavirus was spreading through the New York City jail more than 85 times faster than the average rate of infection in the United States, according to one estimate. Haleen has asthma, which makes him especially vulnerable if he gets sick. Another guy in his unit was taken to isolation after running a high fever. “I’m praying I don’t catch it,” Haleen told me in a phone call Wednesday from the rec room, where about 20 men were watching television.

“You have officers walking around with masks—one came in today with a shower cap and a face shield and gloves, everything short of a hazmat suit,” Donald, another incarcerated man at Rikers, told me. (Attorneys for both men requested that I not publish their last names.) “And you know, we’re here with nothing.”

For weeks, the coronavirus spared US prisons and jails even as it spread through nearby cities. But that has quickly changed, and Rikers Island is at the epicenter. A week ago, on March 20, corrections officials said just one inmate at Rikers had tested positive for COVID-19; as of March 27, at least 103 inmates at New York City jails had the disease, most of them at Rikers. Public health experts are rightly concerned: People in jail are more likely to have other preexisting health conditions, putting them at higher risk for mortality from the virus. And outbreaks inside the complex will likely boomerang into the broader community, which, in New York City’s case, is already reeling from infections.

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