SHAUN KING: Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio Ignored Medical Advice for Months on How to Best Prevent a Coronavirus Outbreak at Rikers. They Are Still Ignoring the Advice

Iran decided to release 70,000 incarcerated people to prevent the spread of the coronavirus inside of their jails and prisons.

The United Nations is calling for a massive reduction of prison populations to help halt the spread of the virus.

Even Los Angeles has now released 1,700 people from their county jail.

But for months, ignoring the professional advice of virtually every civil rights, human rights and public health organization in the city, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have directly caused a completely avoidable catastrophe at the citywide hellhole of a jail known as Rikers.

For those of you who don’t know, Rikers Correctional Facility is so broken, so disgusting, so beyond repair, from its actual physical design to its staff and policies, that a non-partisan blue-ribbon panel of experts said it simply could not be saved. The New York City Council agreed and voted to close it. The mayor agreed. Since the process of fully closing it will take years, tens of thousands of people who come and go through Rikers will continue to suffer.

As news of the coronavirus first hit the world, then the United States, then the city of New York, every single civil rights group I know in New York began offering comprehensive, specific recommendations to Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. They weren’t just tweeting complaints. They were offering specific guidelines, plans, and outcomes.

Civil rights groups recommended that every incarcerated person who was being jailed for simple technical violations of their parole be released. They asked that anybody with less than a year left on their sentence be released. If just these two groups were released, it would mean over 1,000 people would go free. Groups asked that most incarcerated people with underlying conditions that could make the coronavirus deadly be released. They asked that most of the elderly be released. A doctor there said last week that she has patients at Rikers that are over 90 years old and begged the city to release them or give them the care they needed. They asked that drastic measures be taken to give incarcerated people more space to prevent the rapid spread of the virus. They asked that hand sanitizer and cleaning agents that are typically banned from Rikers and other jails be allowed in this instance.

But for weeks on end, none of the recommendations were taken. Not some. None.

As the virus began to spread throughout New York, and the voices of civil rights organizations and public defenders began to grow louder for drastic actions to be taken at Rikers, incarcerated men said their units didn’t even have soap and their units were filthy and had not been cleaned in days. Guards and staff didn’t even have gloves or hand sanitizer for themselves. The Chief Physician at Rikers went public with his pleas on Twitter.

As experts called for the release of thousands of people from Rikers, Mayor de Blasio released 40 this past Friday, weeks after the calls began. It shocked the hell out of the activist community. The virus was already beginning to ravage New York City, other jails around the nation had released twenty and thirty times that number, and he released 40 people? As the desperate pleas for the Mayor and Governor to do drastically more grew louder, 23 more people were released this past Sunday.

63 people. That’s nothing. Little-bitty county jails all over the country released more than that

Our big city mayors and governors, including Democrats like Cuomo and de Blasio, are addicted to incarceration. It’s why I always recommend to people that they read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own, by James Forman, Jr. where he lays out how Democrats from top to bottom helped build and maintain the systems and structures of mass incarceration.

And as New York’s top two leaders played hot potato with the issue and argued over who had the power to do what needed to be done at Rikers, the outbreak ignored their indifference.

First, one incarcerated person tested positive, then a staffer, then another, then a few more, then dozens, then dozens more. Now we are into the hundreds of incarcerated people and staff that have tested positive. The infectious disease ward at Rikers holds 88 people. It’s overwhelmed — just as leaders said it would be months ago if drastic actions weren’t taken.

This morning, the public defenders of Brooklyn released a statement BEGGING the city to not allow one more person to enter Rikers. The jail simply cannot handle them. Hundreds of staffers are now calling out sick. And the facility is completely overwhelmed.

But here we are. For years, I have used the term “throwaway people” to describe how our country views and treats the poor, the homeless, the refugees, and most certainly the incarcerated. Guilty people don’t deserve what’s happening at Rikers right now, but I need you to understand that countless people who are there, now potentially being sentenced to death, have not even been found guilty of a crime. They haven’t even gone to court yet. They are there because they are poor and cannot afford bail.

I love New York. It’s my home. And I know that the mayor and governor have so much on their plate, but I refuse to be silent on the suffering of incarcerated people. Our city ignored the advice of experts until it was too late, and even today they continue to ignore expert advice on what’s next.


At the end of each story we publish about the coronavirus, we are now sharing the following information:

Coronavirus 411

Coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2 but also known as COVID-19, is a novel virus that causes a number of respiratory illnesses, including lung lesions and pneumonia. The virus spreads easily from person to person through the air when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes.

COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to some 175 countries. More than 487,000 people around the world have become infected and more than 22,000 people have died. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency on March 13.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can take between two to 14 days to appear. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and develop symptoms, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing. If you also experience persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse and bluish lips or face, seek medical attention immediately.

In order to keep yourself and others safe, be sure to wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing and avoid touching your face. The CDC is recommending that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled for the next eight weeks. Click here for information on how to prepare for a quarantine.