Number of Covid cases rises in New York prisons| Top stories

Number of Covid cases rises in New York prisons

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New York City prisons are seeing a spike in coronavirus cases as the Omicron variant spreads, gravely threatening inmates at the end of a year that has already seen 16 people die after being detained.

According to a letter sent by outgoing correctional service commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, the rate of coronavirus positivity has increased significantly in recent days among incarcerated people, only 38% of whom are fully vaccinated. Of the city’s residents, 71% are fully vaccinated.

Mr Schiraldi’s letter, sent to city prosecutors, public defenders and judges on Tuesday, said the seven-day test positivity rate among those in prison had jumped to more than 17%. Citywide, the seven-day average positivity rate was 11.2% on Monday.

“The risks to human beings in our care are at a crisis level,” wrote Mr Schiraldi, adding that the prison population faced “a level of risk equal to or greater than Covid now than at the start of the pandemic “.

The department said on Tuesday it would suspend in-person visits with inmates as well as programs and services, including church services, in response to the increase in cases.

A coalition of human rights organizations released a statement calling for the release of those behind bars and urging elected officials, district attorneys and judges to do all they can to prevent further prison admissions .

“Without vaccination, in a collective setting, with people who often have health problems and are vulnerable for a multitude of reasons, we fear more deaths,” said Tina Luongo, the lawyer in charge of the criminal defense of the Legal Aid Society. practice, calling for “immediate action to get as many people as possible away from Rikers”.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed out that the city was seeing a sharp increase in the number of cases caused by the Omicron variant, but with far fewer hospitalizations than in previous waves. He added that 85% of the system’s uniformed personnel had been vaccinated, after the imposition of a warrant that came into effect on December 1.

Dr Mitchell Katz, general manager of New York City Health and Hospitals, said new units have been opened to isolate inmates with the virus from the general population. None of the detainees who recently tested positive had to be hospitalized, he said.

Spokesmen for the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens district attorneys’ offices said their offices are reviewing cases in which bail has been posted or people have been held, and are working to free those who may be released in completely safe. The Bronx and Staten Island prosecutors’ offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did a spokeswoman for Governor Kathy Hochul.

Benny Boscio, the president of a union that represents correctional officers, blamed Mr Schiraldi for the increase in prison cases, saying the department has been negligent when it comes to ensuring that visitors did not have the virus.

“By allowing visitors to enter our prisons without having to show proof of vaccination and without requiring inmates to be vaccinated, Commissioner Schiraldi has once again put thousands of lives at risk,” the statement said. Mr. Boscio.

In the spring of 2020, the mayor of Blasio, along with public defenders and other local officials, helped advocate for an effort to free vulnerable populations from the city’s prisons. This has led to the release of hundreds of people and the total prison population down to less than 4,000, a low not seen in decades.

But the population has grown steadily from the summer of 2020. There are currently around 5,400 people held in New York City jails, most of them in the struggling Rikers Island complex.

The pandemic and a severe staff shortage crippled Rikers’ system, sometimes leaving inmates to control parts of the facility. The 16 deaths represent the deadliest year for the prison system since 2013. Several of the deaths were suicides. A federal comptroller appointed to oversee the reforms recently wrote that the Corrections Department was “trapped in disrepair.”

Jeffery C. Mays contributed reports.

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