SHAUN KING: What’s Happening Right Now As the Coronavirus Spreads at Rikers and America’s Other Jails and Prisons Is a Form of Genocide

Yesterday, I had a long phone conversation with a man who is incarcerated at Rikers Correctional Facility in New York. What he described for me only confirmed every other first-hand description of the deplorable conditions there. The men don’t have soap. I don’t mean special soap. I mean they don’t have soap at all. Even though we learned that incarcerated men are making hand sanitizer, they don’t have any for the incarcerated men at Rikers. They are sleeping within feet of one another. The unit is filthy and has not been cleaned or sanitized in weeks. The man I spoke with said that the officers openly told him they were afraid to clean it.

He went on to tell me that even most of the guards and officers are not wearing masks or gloves. Of course, not a single incarcerated person has been given any such thing. At a time where the CDC and virtually every doctor in the nation has demanded that we practice social distancing, these men simply cannot do any such thing where they are.

And as a result, Rikers currently has the highest rate of infection of any place in the world. It’s growing at a pace ten times that of New York and 75 times faster than that of the United States. It’s growing faster than the worst hit cities in Italy or China. If the US is now the epicenter of the pandemic, and New York is the core of that epicenter, then Rikers is ground zero.

And don’t tell me that bullshit about “if you do the crime, you do the time.” Not a single person at Rikers has been given the death penalty. The man I spoke with, like most men at Rikers, has not even gone to court yet. He hasn’t been found guilty of anything. What about his presumption of innocence? In fact, he can’t go to court because it’s closed. He’s just stuck there, like a sitting duck, damn near bound to get the coronavirus any day now.

The infirmary and infectious disease unit is overwhelmed. The virus is spreading just as rapidly among the staff. And now it’s spreading like wildfire in other jails and prisons all over the country. It’s spreading among police departments. 1,200 NYPD cops have it and an astounding 5,600 of them are out sick. At this point, the argument could be made that the NYPD, alongside the guards and officers at Rikers, are among the primary people spreading it. Because their very methods are literally hands on, we have no idea how many people those officers have spread the virus to.

But the difference is this — once the officers contract it, they can go home. They can go to the doctor or hospital of their choice. They can practice social distancing. They can be quarantined until they get well. But at Rikers, or jails and prisons around the country, no such privilege exists. People are literally stuck in unsafe, unsanitary conditions where social distancing is not even possible. Send a crime scene cleaning company into Rikers with hazmat suits in there to clean the whole place. Start there. Test every single person at Rikers, from the staff to those who are incarcerated, and quarantine everybody who tests positive. Then, isolate every person who does not have the virus from everybody who does. And release every single person from Rikers who can be released unless it is abundantly clear that they will be an active danger to society. If they have to be on supervised release, so be it.

But unless more drastic measures are taken at our nation’s jails and prisons, it’s going to cost countless people their lives. It’s already started. And if drastic safety measures are ignored, that’s what genocide is. When a nation knows the steps that can be taken to save a class of people, but deliberately refuses to take those steps, causing their sickness and death — that’s genocide.


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 180 countries. More than 874,000 people around the world have become infected and more than 43,000 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. Less than two weeks later, on March 26, the United States surpassed China in the number of COVID-19 cases.

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.