Authorities Scramble to Cope With Pandemic-Driven Increase at Rikers Jail

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The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City has experience large spikes in coronavirus infections . Photo by David Oppenheimer via Flickr

As New York City’s jail population has risen by about 58 percent, the already-troubled Rikers Island jail facility is facing a spate of deaths, staggering staffing shortages, and inmates deprived of food and medical care, reports the Associated Press.

The detainee population at the facility, one of the nation’s largest, topped 6,000 inmates at the end of last week after falling below 3,900 inmates as bail reforms took effect, arrests slowed, and some inmates were sent home early in the pandemic.

Meanwhile, roughly 3,050 of the 8,500 guards employed there were on sick leave or medically unfit to work with inmates, according to the Department of Correction. Some guards have been missing shifts without any explanation.

Recently, the city started suspending jail guards for 30 days without pay if they refused to come to work and has even started enlisting a telemarketing company to entice recently retired correctional officers to return to work.

Mayor Bill De Blasio has blamed virus-related court backlogs for the increases and called on judges to use supervised release instead of jail for people accused of nonviolent offenses.

He wants the state’s prison system to transfer sentenced inmates from Rikers within five days and called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign a bill overhauling the parole system.

He also unveiled reforms requiring absent guards to get a doctor’s note if they’re out for more than a day, speeding inmate intake procedures and fixing infrastructure problems like broken cell doors.

Lawmakers who toured Rikers complex this week said it’s filthy and inhumane, with overflowing toilets and floors covered in dead cockroaches, feces and rotting food.

In addition, city jail Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said Monday that the city has authorized the hiring of at least 200 correctional officers. Many say the measures aren’t enough to fix a system where 10 inmates have died this year, at least five in suspected suicides.

The jail is scheduled to close in 2026.

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