A 53-year-old man diagnosed with COVID-19 while jailed for a technical parole violation on Rikers Island died on Sunday at Bellevue Hospital.
Michael Tyson is the first person with COVID-19 to die in the NYC jail system after confirmed cases of the virus have exploded in recent weeks, rising to 273 inmates, 321 Department of Correction employees, and 53 health workers, according to the city's oversight agency, the Board of Correction.
A technical parole violation could mean missing a curfew or an appointment with a parole officer. As of last month, 738 people were held in city jails for parole violations—a number that rose 20 percent between 2014 and 2018. The parole system, which is run by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) under Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been criticized as disproportionately harming people of color; one report earlier this year found Black and Latinx people are more likely to be charged and then jailed for alleged violations.
In a lawsuit filed on Friday against the city and the state by the Legal Aid Society, Tyson was among 100 people identified for release who were jailed on technical parole violations. The lawsuit says that the Correctional Health Services, an entity of the city's hospital system, wrote in an April 2nd letter that Tyson was "in the highest risk group due to age and underlying health issues."
"We are both heartbroken and outraged to learn that our client, Michael Tyson, who was held on Rikers Island for a technical parole violation, has passed away from COVID-19," Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement.
"This tragedy would have been entirely avoidable if only Governor Cuomo had directed DOCCS to act decisively from the outset of this epidemic to release incarcerated New Yorkers who, like Mr. Tyson, were especially vulnerable to the virus," Luongo said.
On March 27th, Governor Andrew Cuomo had ordered the release of as many as 1,100 low-level parole violators in local jails, including up to 400 in NYC jails. As of Monday, 676 people had their warrants canceled, including 238 in New York City.
Tyson was admitted to Bellevue Hospital on March 26th. He was arrested in late February.
DOCCS said Tyson was jailed most recently for not showing up for a parole meeting—what's called absconding— and a warrant for his arrest was issued May 8, 2019. He had also moved residences, and his parole officer was unable to contact him, the department said.
Tyson was not among those flagged for release because of previous convictions for which he had already served state prison time for, including attempted rape and attempted robbery, according to the department. His next hearing was April 20th.
The governor's office has not responded to our questions.
"Our deepest condolences go out to the detainee's family in their time of grief," said Peter Thorne, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Correction. "The safety and well-being of those in our custody remains our number one priority."
The top doctor at Rikers Island, Ross MacDonald, has called for the release of as many people as possible in anticipation of a coming "storm," as health experts and advocates have warned correctional facilities are breeding grounds for the virus. In addition to Tyson, four DOC employees have died.
Those incarcerated in NYC jails as well as their loved ones have said disinfectant wipes for high-touch areas like phones have not been provided, and a bucket of cleaning solution is set up on the floors instead. Inmates and staff were starting to be provided masks in some parts of the jail as recently as last week, according to the DOC and two people who are detained who spoke to Gothamist.
"We can only practice social distancing so much," said Craig Demeo, who was detained on March 3rd for a parole violation. He says he had failed a drug test and was supposed to go to a detox program, but was jailed instead. "We sleep three feet away from each other in the dorm." He added, "They're telling us to pray."
To increase social distancing between inmates in jail, more than 1,000 people had been released from the NYC jail system, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday.
In state prisons, Cuomo has so far released zero people in response to the coronavirus pandemic, despite his order to release some parole violators in local jails.
During a press briefing on Friday, Cuomo said the state has "no measures to lessen crowding in state prisons."
"We have put in a number of regulations and rules to reduce the risk," Cuomo said. "But reducing the prison population—we don't have any way to do that right now."
In state prisons, five people have died COVID-19 related deaths—including two inmates, two parolees, and a civilian employee, DOCCS confirmed. Juan Mosquero, 58, was the first death in state prisons at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. The Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign says a second death has been reported at Otisville Correctional Facility. (DOCCS has declined to confirm where cases and deaths are located.)
"When this happens, everybody is concerned that they will be next," said Jose Saldana, director of RAPP.
Of the 43,000 individuals incarcerated in state prisons, 54 have tested positive, as well as 13 of more than 35,000 parolees under supervision; 310 DOCCS employees are positive with the virus. Another 34 incarcerated individuals have pending test results, and 35 have tested negative.
Defense lawyers have pointed to ways in which the state could reduce the prison population, through clemencies from the governor or other legal means.
"Governor Cuomo has the authority to grant clemency and exercise other forms of executive authority to release our vulnerable clients and other incarcerated New Yorkers now," Luongo of Legal Aid said in her statement.
"Albany's inaction has already cost lives; and, as the virus reaches its apex, many more will succumb unless the Governor and DOCCS act immediately to address the humanitarian crisis in our jails and prisons," Luongo said.
Saldana, who held a vigil on Friday in honor of Mosquero with other advocates, said the governor has notoriously been "stingy" on granting clemencies.
"What troubles me is that he claims not to have a process for this. Of course he does. He's totally ignoring that this is a deadly virus for people incarcerated," Saldana said.
Measures inside prisons have differed from what DOCCS has touted as safety protocols to keep the virus at bay, like providing sanitizer, soap and water, and cancelling visits.
Legal Aid attorney Stefen Short has said his clients in state prisons have told him there's no hot water. While DOCCS said they have temporarily lifted the ban on alcohol-based hand sanitizer, Short said his clients have had a hard time accessing it. Two inmates were disciplined for using masks last week.
"This is a governor that is representing himself as essentially the leader of the movement to deal with the COVID-19 crisis," Short said.
An employee at a public defense office with several clients in state prisons, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said a client of hers has used a sock to hold the phone when calling to avoid touching un-sanitized, high-touch areas. Another said dozens of people are forced to use five soap dispensers at one prison, and sick calls have been reduced even for non-COVID related ailments.
"[My client] was saying everyone is crowding around the soap dispensers to use them, which is defeating the purpose of keeping away from other people," she said. "Everyone is waiting in line to wash their hands. What's the point of even doing that?"
She said one client, at Green Haven, was instructed to build coffins through Corcraft's prison labor program where workers make 65 cents an hour on average. (DOCCS says coffin manufacturing has been a part of the program prior to COVID-19, though Corcraft's online inventory of available products shows nothing when searching for "coffins" or "caskets.")
"They know that they are very likely to die. Those are the conversations that I'm having with clients this week and probably this coming week as well," the employee said.
With reporting from WNYC's Andy Mai.
This article has been updated with information from DOCCS.