‘This is Madness’: New Yorkers in Jail Despite COVID Pledges

Print More
jail deaths

Illustration courtesy Vera Institute of Justice

Two months after New York corrections authorities promised to release all individuals jailed for technical parole violations to protect them from the coronavirus, hundreds remain behind bars, says Columbia University’s Justice Lab.

On March 27, after discovering that 103 currently incarcerated individuals and 95 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) promised to release 1,100 people jailed for non-criminal technical parole violations — like missing a court appearance, staying out past curfew, being unemployed or testing positive for drugs — in response to the threatening pandemic.

A report released by Columbia University researchers this week found that just 800 incarcerated individuals have been released.

The Columbia Justice Lab also made another startling discovery: People are being incarcerated faster than the DOCCS is releasing them.

“Locking people up for non-criminal, technical parole violations — like New York does more than all but one state — wasn’t such hot public policy before the pandemic,” Vincent Schiraldi, author of the report and co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab said.

“But since the pandemic, it is life threatening.”

Schiraldi, who is also a former New York City Probation Commissioner, added: “Unless an individual poses a demonstrable and imminent public safety risk, all people held in jails and prisons for technical parole violations [must] be released.”

Moreover, individual held in jails for non-criminal technical parole violations have not been found guilty of the offenses they are charged with. Many are waiting behind prison bars for a hearing on their cases because they could not afford bail.

After taking an extensive look into the DOCCS’s May 20th Progress Report, the researchers found that when breaking the full 1,100 number down, the DOCCS only released 790 people accused of technical parole violations statewide (300 out of the promised 400 from NYC), which equates to releasing only three out of every four individuals promised freedom.

Conditions in jails continue to worsen. It’s difficult to stay clean; “social distancing is impossible; and [jails] are packed full of people who are disproportionately medically vulnerable,” the researchers said.

Just last week it was discovered that the number of COVID-19 positive staff members increased 16-fold, from 103 to 1,500, and the number of inmates testing positive tripled from 95 to 363 with 16 deaths total — just on Rikers Island alone, the report outlines.

As if these numbers couldn’t hit closer to home for those incarcerated for technical parole violations, the Columbia Justice Lab uncovered that the first two people to die of COVID-19 at Rikers — Raymond Rivera and Michael Tyson — were incarcerated for the same offense.

To make things worse, the Columbia Justice Lab noted, in the two months since the state directive was issued, “approximately 170 people accused of technical parole violations were newly sent to the Rikers jails.”

Looked at another way, the data shows that an average of roughly three new individuals are being sent to Rikers each day during the global pandemic for non-criminal technical parole violations.

This number appears to be accelerating and, if the rate individuals arrested for technical parole violations continues on its current projections, the number of new inmates booked will actually surpass the amount of people released as early as June or early July, the report claims.

This will essentially erase all of the progress that advocates and researchers have been trying to make, the Columbia Justice Lab charges.

In response to this report, elected officials and advocates alike have ferociously announced their support for reform, specifically citing the Less is More Act, which aims to eliminate incarceration for most technical parole violations.

Seven sitting District Attorneys, the New York State Association of Counties and the New York and Rochester City Councils, are among those in support of the Act.

“COVID-19 has changed the calculus by which we determine who should be confined in our jails and prisons,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez is quoted as saying in the report.

“I support legislation to reduce the number of people being jailed for technical parole violations that do not involve new arrests.”

To combat these quickly growing concerns, the Columbia Justice Lab is uring policymakers to enact common-sense reforms, such as:

      • ending automatic pre-hearing incarceration for people facing technical violations;
      • eliminating incarceration for less serious technical violations;
      • capping incarceration terms for technical violations; and,
      • incentivizing parole compliance through grants of ‘merit time’ for following the rules.

Schiraldi of the Columbia Justice Lab concluded by saying, “This is madness, and the legislature and governor should act to stop state corrections from jeopardizing people’s lives for minor missteps.”

The full report can be accessed here.

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *