Rikers Island nurses say Hochul-ordered inmate release not making a dent; COVID cases climbing

More than one-third of the inmates imprisoned in Rikers Island’s urgent care unit have tested positive for COVID after completing the intake process there, according to the union that represents nurses at the jail complex.

© Provided by New York Daily News New York Governor Kathy Hochul

“After admission, they’ll come in negative,” said Gene Thomas, a registered nurse who’s worked at Rikers for the past 29 years. “Then five or six days later, they’ll come in with symptoms and then they’ll test positive.”

Carl Ginsburg, a spokesman for the New York State Nurses Association, said, based on estimates offered by the union’s members, approximately three out of eight, or about 37%, of inmates in Rikers’ urgent care unit who tested negative for COVID later test positive after they’d been put through the crowded intake process there.

He also noted that some inmates aren’t even receiving medical screens upon intake and said the situation there has descended into “chaos.”

© Provided by New York Daily News Activists hold a “Less is More” banner outside Rikers Island last week in Queens, New York.

Activists hold a “Less is More” banner outside Rikers Island last week in Queens, New York. (Theodore Parisienne/)

The de Blasio administration pushed back on the numbers Ginsburg shared, though. Jeanette Merrill, spokeswoman for the city’s Correctional Health Services division, said that as of Sunday, the COVID positivity rate throughout Rikers averaged over seven days stood at 5.17%.

“This includes patients who test positive at intake and post-intake, representing both community-acquired infections and in-jail transmission,” she said. She also said that Rikers does not have an urgent care unit.

The notorious jail complex has come under intense scrutiny over the past several weeks. Eleven inmate have died there in the past year, cells are swelling with prisoners, and corrections officers often work 24 hours straight. Criticisms over those conditions and the city’s handling of the situation led Mayor de Blasio to announce last week that the NYPD would offer some relief and that corrections officers would be suspended without pay for a month if they don’t show up to work.

© Kevin P. Coughlin On Friday, flanked by Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, progressive advocates and state Democratic leaders, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Act, which will end the practice of sending people to jail as they await hearings over alleged technical parole violations, such as missed curfews and marijuana use. The signing of the decarceration bill, which is expected to release several hundred detainees from city jails, comes after weeks of public outcry over a string of deaths at Rikers Island.

On Friday, flanked by Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, progressive advocates and state Democratic leaders, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Act, which will end the practice of sending people to jail as they await hearings over alleged technical parole violations, such as missed curfews and marijuana use. The signing of the decarceration bill, which is expected to release several hundred detainees from city jails, comes after weeks of public outcry over a string of deaths at Rikers Island. (Kevin P. Coughlin/)

But Thomas said inmates are still packed into cells — often 20 to 25 of them in enclosures that are about 14-feet by 15-feet.

“They give them masks, but they don’t use it. No social distance. No mask wearing,” she said. “All of the cells are overcrowded.”

Last week, in an effort to reduce the number of people housed at Rikers, de Blasio also pushed Gov. Hochul to sign off on the Less is More Act, which limits the types of parole violations someone can be jailed for. Hochul signed the law, which goes into effect in March, and also issued an executive order allowing the immediate release of 191 Rikers inmates.

© Provided by New York Daily News Front page for Sept. 16, 2021: Blaz: Don’t blame me, I’ve been trying to close Rikers Is. 20 jail officers suspended for not coming to work. Protester (right) was among those rallying at City Hall on Wednesday urging Mayor de Blasio (left) to shut down Rikers Island, where some conditions have been described as a humanitarian crisis. The mayor tossed the ball to Gov. Hochul, saying she could sign a measure that would quickly reduce the population.

Front page for Sept. 16, 2021: Blaz: Don’t blame me, I’ve been trying to close Rikers Is. 20 jail officers suspended for not coming to work. Protester (right) was among those rallying at City Hall on Wednesday urging Mayor de Blasio (left) to shut down Rikers Island, where some conditions have been described as a humanitarian crisis. The mayor tossed the ball to Gov. Hochul, saying she could sign a measure that would quickly reduce the population.

On Monday, de Blasio said that so far 161 of those 191 inmates have been released, and most of those who haven’t been are still locked up due to outstanding warrants in jurisdictions outside New York City or for charges separate from what they’re being jailed at Rikers for.

“They will not be released until that is appropriately addressed,” he said. “But 161 are out so far.”

Thomas suggested their release hasn’t yet made a dent in the overcrowding at the jail.

“I was there last night,” she said Monday morning. “I heard they were doing a lot of discharge, but the cells were still overcrowded.”

Nadyne Pressley, a nursing supervisor who’s worked at Rikers for 13 years, said she doesn’t expect the release of 191 inmates to help much because, by her estimate, about 100 new inmates are coming in each day.

“If you’re releasing 190, and the buses are bringing in 100 every day, that’s not helping,” she said. “That’s like putting a band aid on a balloon. It’s going to pop.”

© Provided by New York Daily News New York City Mayor de Blasio

New York City Mayor de Blasio (Luiz C. Ribeiro/)

She blamed the fact that the Department of Correction is now only using one building on Rikers, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, as an intake facility, although a second, the Eric M. Taylor Center, is set to resume intake Monday evening.

Both the Taylor Center and the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center had been handling intake before plans to close Rikers started going into effect.

© Provided by New York Daily News Inmates line up in Rikers Island’s George Motchan Detention Center in Queens, New York.

Inmates line up in Rikers Island’s George Motchan Detention Center in Queens, New York. (James Keivom / New York Daily Ne/)

The pleas to move faster to relieve the pressure at Rikers came as another inmate, Isa Abdul Karim, died there on Sunday.

“We are investigating everything related to that tragedy. It’s horrible. We want to know what happened here and why,” de Blasio said. “We need a full investigation to understand.”

Hizzoner said Karim was not on Hochul’s list of inmates to be released.

© Provided by New York Daily News A New York Department of Corrections bus leaves Rikers Island in Queens, New York.

A New York Department of Corrections bus leaves Rikers Island in Queens, New York. (Theodore Parisienne/)

De Blasio estimated that the city would no longer have correction officers pulling triple shifts at Rikers in October thanks to new hires and NYPD officers coming on to handle the duties correction officers usually perform in courthouses.

But Pressley remained skeptical of whether that would help either. Working in the courts is viewed as a plum gig and is usually reserved for veteran corrections officers, she said. And many who now perform it might be more inclined to retire than return to Rikers after they’re relieved by the NYPD.

“They don’t want to come back from their cushiony jobs,” she said. “There’s a lot of officers getting hurt at Rikers.”

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