A member of the New York City jails' oversight agency warned of a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths if the number of people incarcerated rises once again following unprecedented releases to mitigate the spread of the virus.
"We live today in hope of a better tomorrow, but we live in clear expectation that there will be a surge in infections and a surge in deaths later this year," Board of Correction member Robert Cohen said during an oversight hearing on the city's response to COVID-19 in city jail facilities via Zoom on Tuesday. "It is vitally important that the jail population not be allowed to increase to pre-COVID levels."
Between April 24th and May 18th, the jail population rose from 3,869 to 3,954, Cohen said. The number of those held pre-trial and unable to afford bail rose from 3,316 to 3,484 that same period. Other categories—one-year low-level sentences or technical parole violations—have continued to decrease.
The outbreak in NYC jails grew from one to more than 100 within days in March. Three people in custody have died—in addition to at least one who died after he was released by the correction department. Eleven DOC employees have died as well as two jails' health staff, while 1,546 DOC and jails' health staff have tested positive for the virus.
A critical focus for the jails' health staff and the BOC the last few weeks has been to drastically reduce the jail population—allowing for more social distancing and reducing the risk of people who would be at high risk if they were to contract the virus due to age and underlying health conditions.
"The decrease in population was intentional," Cohen said.
The jail population has dropped by about one-third since March 16th, from more than 5,500 to below 4,000. Of 1,400 people who were released, 110 were rearrested, just below 8 percent, according to the NYPD.
"I think it's fair to assume that there will be a second wave, and I think that DOC and [Correctional Health Services] have done an incredible job figuring out how to respond to this crisis in a very short period of time," added Margaret Egan, the newly appointed executive director of the board.
The DOC has been criticized for the disconnect between what the department reports—personal protective equipment, free soap and cleaning supplies for inmates, and social distancing efforts—and inmates, who’ve told Gothamist they don't have hand sanitizer and find it difficult to socially distance. Across 45 instances of phone use, the phone was cleaned three times, a BOC audit published May 11th found.
During the hearing, Brann spoke publicly for the first time on the coronavirus crisis in jails. With guidelines to sanitize high-touch areas every two hours, shower cleaning three times a day, and a laundry list of other measures, "we are seeing success," she said.
"The number of new positive cases in quarantined housing units across the facilities is steadily declining—a clear indication our containment strategies are working," Brann said.
"I personally tour the jails," Brann said after Queens City Councilmember Rory Lancman asked about her silence. She said she talks with staff, those in custody, her deputy commissioners and wardens. "I find that when I do talk to folks, they're not concerned that they don't have things available to them—some of the time they just—they forget to use it."
She said people in custody "choose" to use socks or T-shirts to cover phones—rather than use provided buckets of cleaning supplies—and she's seen people in custody with masks around their chins.
The CHS senior-vice president Patricia Yang revealed Tuesday that 47 percent of inmates tested had the virus—545 out of 1,154 people tested, which includes those who have been released—but CHS stressed its testing rate among inmates is more than four times that of New York City. Between March 25th and May 15th, 34 inmates were hospitalized, data made public for the first time Tuesday.
Antibody testing among inmates begins Tuesday, CHS officials also announced.
New admissions into the city's jails now receive testing and are temporarily housed at the Manhattan Detention Complex, a city jail facility in Lower Manhattan. About seven percent of newly admitted people test positive, chief medical officer at CHS, Ross MacDonald, said.
“It’s important to point out that the epidemic curve has declined very dramatically,” MacDonald said.
Stuyvesant Town Councilmember Keith Powers introduced three measures to address the pandemic inside jails: establishing a permanent commission to review inmates for release who are serving less than a year sentence; requiring the correction department and jails' health staff to report additional data regarding public health crises; and setting a $5 limit on fees for transferring money into inmates' commissary accounts, where people in custody can buy food or other supplies.