Inside A Coronavirus Quarantine Unit At Rikers

For almost a week, Kelvin Heredia has had trouble breathing. Last Sunday, he was transferred to a building on Rikers Island that is now being used to test incarcerated men for the coronavirus. The 24-year-old has asthma, and he’s suffering from chest pains and panic attacks that block off his airways. He doesn’t have an inhaler.

His COVID-19 test came back positive. But instead of getting the medical help he needs, he is being ignored. 

Heredia says no doctor or nurse has come by to check on him. On Wednesday, he waited until 3 a.m. to be treated by someone at the jail’s infirmary, and was repeatedly told by staff that the clinic was too overcrowded to see him.

“I’m worried I might have a heart attack, and what if I can’t breath?” he said, adding that he’s being held in Rikers for a parole violation. “I don’t know if I’m going to wake up.”

One of the most concentrated coronavirus outbreaks in the world is happening in New York City’s biggest jail complex, which holds roughly 5,000 detainees in its eight facilities. As of Friday, 273 staff members and 239 incarcerated people had tested positive for COVID-19 in New York City’s jails ― the Department of Correction wouldn’t specify how many of those cases were specifically at Rikers. But the infection rate at the jail is eight times that of the city, itself the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, according to an analysis from The Legal Aid Society, which is suing for the release of certain high-risk inmates.

The jail’s top doctor called the situation a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes,” and detainees say they are crammed together in dorms without the necessary gloves, soap and cleaning supplies to protect themselves from getting sick.

They are treating us as if we are not humans. A lot of us are going to be going home in body bags.
Chris Hatcher

One of the eight buildings on Rikers Island, the Eric M. Taylor Center, is now being used as a quarantine unit for 180 people who have coronavirus symptoms and those who have tested positive for the disease. The EMTC was shut down in early March as part of a plan to eventually close all the jails on Rikers Island, but reopened three weeks later to help stave off the outbreak, since the only building with a medical unit to treat contagious diseases is completely overwhelmed.

And while this kind of segregation seems like a necessary stopgap, seven incarcerated men told HuffPost the conditions inside the facility are hazardous to their health, and they’re afraid they will die there. They described a lack of medical care, and a filthy environment where people with the virus are detained alongside those who are awaiting their results or who have tested negative.

“They are treating us as if we are not humans,” said Chris Hatcher, a 39-year-old who has been in EMTC since last Thursday. “A lot of us are going to be going home in body bags.”

A spokesperson for Correctional Health Services said that people are “placed in special housing units for monitoring or isolation for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of COVID-19 infection,” and that the CHS facilities are “among the best equipped in the nation to provide the appropriate, safe care to those patients.”

In this March 16, 2011, file photo, a security fence surrounds inmate housing on the Rikers Island correctional facility in N

In this March 16, 2011, file photo, a security fence surrounds inmate housing on the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York.

Dirty Cells, A Chorus Of Coughs

The EMTC can hold up to 1,700 people, and most are detained in open, dormitory-style areas. There’s also a portion of the building with solitary cells, where incarcerated men told HuffPost they were sent to take a coronavirus test and wait for their results.

Those who test positive are supposed to be sent to a dormitory area with others who have the virus, according to a Department of Correction letter that David Soto, a 41-year-old being held at EMTC, read to HuffPost over the phone. But HuffPost spoke with four people with confirmed cases who said they are still being kept in cells alongside men who are awaiting their tests or who are negative.

“If I didn’t come in with corona[virus] I’m going to get it,” said Abdoul Quattra, who was transferred to EMTC on March 26 and is still awaiting his tests results. Three days after being sent to the facility, he got a fever, cold and migraine.

“I’m worrying about dying in this place,” he said.

Quattra and Soto say they are being kept in an area with roughly 35 solitary cells. This week, 16 people in their unit tested positive for the virus, a figure corroborated in multiple HuffPost interviews, yet only a few were transferred to another part of the building.

They don’t clean the cells, they don’t check our pulses, they don’t do nothing.
Chris Hatcher

Correctional Health Services did not answer HuffPost’s questions about why all people with the coronavirus were not being quarantined together.

There are plenty of opportunities for those locked in EMTC’s solitary cells to catch the virus. Men see each other in the communal day room, when they use the phones, and when they take showers. On top of that, they say their cells are not being cleaned, and that they don’t have access to any disinfectant. The men are only given one mask and told HuffPost they are served meals, which are usually cold, by guards who don’t frequently change their gloves.

New York City’s DOC told HuffPost that “hand soap and cleaning supplies are offered free of charge to people in custody” and that hand soap is allowed in each person’s cell.

The men at EMTC described hearing a chorus of coughs and sneezes and said they have no idea when they will get medical care or be transferred to another area.

“They don’t clean the cells, they don’t check our pulses, they don’t do nothing,” said Hatcher, who tested positive for the coronavirus.

This June 20, 2014, file photo shows the Rikers Island jail complex with the Manhattan skyline in the background.

This June 20, 2014, file photo shows the Rikers Island jail complex with the Manhattan skyline in the background.

Pleading For Medical Care

Bernard Gumbs said he hasn’t seen a doctor or nurse since he arrived at the facility on Monday, despite telling correctional officers that he has chest pains. The 39-year-old, who has asthma, said he has not yet seen his test results, but has flu-like symptoms and has been coughing up phlegm.

On Wednesday, when Gumbs spoke with HuffPost, he said he’d been waiting six hours to see a doctor at the medical clinic, but that to get any attention “you have to pass out on the floor and be unresponsive.” He knows the longer he stays in the unit, the higher his chances are of becoming infected.

“You got to basically sit in this, wait, and hope that God just gives you another chance,” he said. “My worst fears are that my family will not be able to talk to me because I’m dead.”

Incarcerated men told HuffPost that at most, they’ve seen a nurse come by every few days to take people’s temperature, and that anyone with a fever is given Tylenol or, more often, nothing at all. Hatcher said his chest feels heavy and congested, but that he’s not getting any medical help.

“I’m locked inside this cell and scared for my life,” he said. “I don’t want to be put on the back of an ice truck because these people don’t care.”

I don’t want to be put on the back of an ice truck because these people don’t care.
Chris Hatcher

The men described being treated like “animals” in a dirty and chaotic environment. The hallways are littered with garbage that correctional officers don’t want to pick up for fear of contracting the virus, said Monroe. He described the unit as “the worst back alley you’ve ever seen” and said he was staring at a wall smeared with collard greens from someone’s meal, while on the phone with HuffPost.

Multiple men said they don’t have access to water for hours at a time, and that they aren’t always served the required three meals a day. New York City’s DOC said detainees are not deprived of meals or water and that the department is committed to “robust sanitation protocols throughout its facilities” and has “ramped up existing cleaning policies to combat the potential spread of the coronavirus.”

Fights regularly break out in the hallways, often instigated by staff, according to Corey Williams, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday. While on the phone with HuffPost, Williams said the yelling noises in the background were COs “roughing” up six guys.

The conditions inside EMTC are getting worse as more staff on Rikers test positive for the coronavirus. Detained people rely on COs to bring them to medical clinics and make sure they get checkups, said Kelsey De Avila, the project director of jail services at Brooklyn Defender Services.

“We will see deaths,” she said. “The violence will increase. You’re going to have tensions among staff members and among people in custody.”

Men in EMTC have been waiting more than a week for their coronavirus test results, giving them plenty of time to catch the virus if they hadn’t already.

On Thursday, Monroe said he’d been waiting to get his test results for 12 days, leaving him stuck in a hellish limbo of wondering if he’s been exposed to the virus.

He says he can’t sleep and lies awake at night thinking, “When will it end?” “When will the doctor just come and say, ‘Listen, you’re positive.’ In here it’s inevitable, you’re going to get sick. It’s just whether or not you’re going to die from it.”

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