And at the New York City jail, 167 inmates and 137 staff members have tested positive for coronavirus so far.
BY LUKE DARBY – March 31, 2020 – from GQ
In a speech on Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease official in the country, said there are “glimmers” that social distancing is slowing the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. He warned that Americans are still “in a very difficult situation” and shouldn’t get overconfident, there are signs that the outbreak is starting to dampen. As of Tuesday, Johns Hopkins reports a total of 175,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., far and away the worst outbreak in the world so far. The death toll passed that of 9/11, with more than 3,400.
Since the U.S. was so slow to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19, the benefits of social distancing will be slower to kick in, which is why Fauci is cautiously optimistic about positive “glimmers.” But things are still especially bad in New York state, which currently has 75,000 confirmed cases and more than 40,000 in New York City alone. In particularly ominous news, the city is now planning to dig mass graves on Hart Island, a 130-acre piece of land in the northeastern Bronx. More specifically, according to The Intercept, the city is paying Rikers Island inmates to dig whose mass graves, well below the city’s minimum wage of $15 per hour: in exchange for personal protective equipment (PPE) and just $6 an hour.
Ryan Grim writes that mayor Bill de Blasio’s office confirmed the arrangement with Rikers Island, but claimed it wasn’t “COVID specific” despite the PPE available to the inmates. The city morgues and cemeteries are already overwhelmed, and FEMA is sending 85 refrigerated trucks for bodies of those dying from COVID-19. The city already owns a public cemetery on Hart Island that has long been maintained by prison labor—and according to a 2008 pandemic preparedness report, that cemetery is meant for “temporary mass internment method” that involves caskets in rows of 10, lined up head to foot to avoid stacking.
This wouldn’t be the first time that New York City prisoners work on coronavirus relief: earlier this month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Rikers Island inmates would be producing 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer for people to purchase in response to price gouging.
But while some of the people locked up on Rikers Island are providing cut-rate labor to fight the outbreak, the facility itself is crowded and unsanitary, according to a recent New York Times article. Jails across the city, including Rikers Island, are reporting 167 inmates and 137 staff members who have tested positive for coronavirus. One inmate told the Times, “It’s like I’m doomed. I feel like my life is in danger.” Another man, being held on a technical parole violation, said, “We’re left for dead. We’re just stuck here.”
Across the country, jails and prisons—where social distancing and frequent hand washing is near impossible—are seeing similar outbreaks. One federal facility in Louisiana confirmed 30 cases among inmates and staff in a matter of days—one inmate has died so far and another 60 are in quarantine. The Harris County jail near Houston confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on Sunday, the same day that Texas governor Greg Abbott issued a sweeping executive order that dramatically restricted what local counties can do to reduce their jailed population—thanks to Abbott’s order, local officials are barred from releasing inmates if they can’t pay their bail.
Lawyers for celebrity inmates are also trying to use the coronavirus outbreak to get their clients out of jail. R. Kelly’s legal team has claimed, “Requiring people to reside in a custodial jail setting is tantamount to making them drink poison.” Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels’s former lawyer Michael Avenatti, both imprisoned, have petitioned judges to release them on humanitarian grounds. And in a prison in New York state, disgraced movie producer and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein has reportedly tested positive.
Last week, Cuomo ordered more than 1,100 inmates held on parole violations released, after caving to pressure from activists. But he’s been even slower to grant clemency to elderly prisoners who are petitioning to be released, despite older people who have served long sentences having recidivism rates of nearly zero according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Nationwide, there are an estimated 150,000 inmates over the age of 55, putting them at very high risk of dying from COVID-19. As of 2016, the number of seniors in prison finally exceeded the number adults between 18 and 24 for the first time. In Cook County jail, there are already 134 confirmed cases—one of the first inmates diagnosed described the prison as “Disneyland for coronavirus.”