By Kevin Deutsch
Nurses rallied for more masks, soap, and sanitizer for prisoners at Rikers Island Thursday afternoon, as recorded COVID-19 cases continue to climb among the jail complex’s inmate population.
Handling of the island’s jails, which critics say is a breeding ground for the disease, has been sharply criticized by justice advocates, who allege guards are keeping prisoners too close together, in unhygienic spaces, amid the devastating outbreak.
City officials on Thursday defended their handling of prisoners housed at Rikers, insisting the Department of Correction is keeping inmates safe with PPE, and calling the allegations of unsanitary conditions untrue.
The protesting nurses, gathered outside the jail’s entrance on Hazen Street in East Elmhurst, Queens, said the city must do better.
“At Rikers, nurses don’t have enough PPE and patients don’t have enough soap, social distancing, or testing to be safe and healthy,” the New York State Nurses Association, which organized Thursday’s rally, said in an announcement. “Nurses are speaking out to highlight the continuing COVID-19 crisis in NYC, and the inequities we see in treatment and resources in New York’s low-income communities and communities of color.”
Data recorded by DOC through May 3 show at least 370 city inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, with three of them dying at local hospitals.
The data also show 1,148 DOC employees, and 174 state department of health staffers, have tested positive for the virus.
The city, according to a recent Bronx Supreme Court decision, provided masks for all prisoners and staff on April 3, 2020, mandated that everyone wear them in all public areas, and implemented the same COVID-19 public health initiatives utilized in hospitals, including coronavirus testing and social distancing.
DOC Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Peter Thorne also pushed back against the nurses’ claims.
“The safety and health of people in our facilities always comes first, which is why we have been distributing ample PPE to staff and detainees alike and will do so for the duration of the pandemic,” Thorne said in a statement to Bronx Justice News. “We have been working around the clock to ensure that our personnel and individuals in our custody remain safe.”
A spokesperson for NYC Health+Hospitals/Correctional Health Services, too, defended the city’s care of prisoners, saying its staffers are “continuously refining and tailoring our approach to the unique environment of NYC jails.”
“CHS staff have and have had access to appropriate and sufficient supplies of PPE throughout this crisis,” the spokesperson said.