Rikers Island, a sprawling complex of eight jails in New York, is one of the worst places to be during the coronavirus pandemic. In these facilities, the virus is spreading at a rate eight times faster than in New York City. There are more than 600 positive cases, including staff, and two people detained on Rikers have already died of COVID-19.
It’s no mystery why New York’s biggest jail complex has become an epicenter of the pandemic. It’s like a cruise ship without any of the luxury amenities. People are packed tightly together with no hope of social distancing, and they don’t have access to the soap, masks and gloves necessary to protect themselves and others. There also isn’t sufficient medical care to treat an outbreak. People are scared for their lives.
That includes the 160 women currently held in the Rose M. Singer Center, the only place specifically for female detainees on Rikers. Three of them, all with serious health conditions, spoke to HuffPost about what it’s like being behind bars as the coronavirus rapidly spreads throughout the facility.
Like others detained at Rikers, they feel as if their safety is being ignored by the staff and the politicians with the power to release them, despite the fact that many are awaiting their trials or are locked up on parole violations. Though the jail has made attempts to quarantine people with the disease, men and women told HuffPost that people who test positive, negative or are awaiting their results are all getting mixed together. Even those who are sick and in quarantine said they have to wait up to a week for any medical attention.
Multiple women who tested positive for COVID-19 told HuffPost they were transferred back to general population units before the recommended 14-day quarantine period was finished, which means they could infect others. And as more Rikers staff get sick and can’t show up to work, there aren’t enough correctional officers, doctors and nurses to stave off the outbreak or treat the most critical patients.
In their own words, women share what it’s like inside Rikers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Naomi Leonard, 26.
She is awaiting trial and has been on Rikers Island for 13 months.
I’m transgender and have a chronic illness. I’m supposed to be first priority for release since I’m HIV-positive. If I catch the coronavirus, I can die. It’s going to give my body too much to fight at one time, right? I already have a virus in me. Can you imagine if I have to try and fight two viruses? I can barely fight off a cold or flu.
I’m a thousand percent scared. I’m really scared for my life and for my safety.
They don’t give us the proper supplies. We’re running out of soap; it’s unsanitary. There is not enough masks going around. We don’t get hand sanitizer. We don’t get what we need to keep ourselves safe. The guards only worry about themselves.
A lot of officers here are calling out sick. People in here are sick. But we’re not being tested the way we should be. We have to beg. Every time I ask the nurses to test me, they don’t. They say I don’t have a fever or any telltale signs. I feel a little bit sick.
They put people who test positive in quarantine, but then they come back to our unit. We eat and sleep together. You can open your legs and touch another person’s bed. There’s not enough space ― it’s like a small alley lane. That’s how close we can be each other in this dorm with 15 or 14 other people.
There’s people in here that have immune deficiencies and heart problems who are still walking around. On Wednesday, a judge denied my release knowing that I have a chronic illness. At the end of the day, my health should come first. While you’re quarantined I’m in jail dying or getting sick.
I feel like it’s the end of the world for me. Everybody deserves a second chance in life, no matter what you do. I feel like I really deserve a second chance.
Brandy Mills, 41.
Mills is awaiting trial and has been held on Rikers for almost a year.
All the houses on Rosie’s (the Rose M. Singer Center building) are quarantined. We’ve been on lockdown since March 25th or the 23rd. We know we can’t go outside. We can’t do nothing. So we’re stuck in the unit. We’re going crazy in here. There was a really bad food fight, and I got pushed on the floor.
The staff are separating the girls that have corona, but they only leave them in the solitary unit for like 5 or 10 days and then they put them back with us. (Multiple women who tested positive for COVID-19 told HuffPost they spent less than two weeks in quarantine.)
No nurses came for seven days. No sick call doctors have come here to take our temperatures or nothing since last Monday. A few weeks ago I got sick and they would not let me go to the doctor. I was throwing up. I had the hot sweats. They didn’t didn’t send me to quarantine or nothing. So I sat in my bed for three days really sick.
I have asthma and hepatitis C. I’m worried that I can die in here. Some of us don’t have our families. Some of us don’t have nobody. So I don’t want to die and be put in potter’s field or wherever they put us. You know what I mean?
I think about my son. He’s 20. You don’t think about yourself when you think about death. You think about the people that’s around you. The first thing that pops in my head is not me. It’s my family. You know what I mean? It’s the people that I’m leaving behind.
I’m a grandmother. I’ve never seen my grandbaby. I don’t want to die in prison not even getting the chance to tell my daughter I’m sorry about the shit I’ve done. That I wish I was there for her pregnancy. Just things I wasn’t there for that a mother should have been.
I don’t want to die in prison without getting to know my family.
Gabrielle Foster, 31.
Foster is awaiting trial and has been on Rikers for 14 months.
I have asthma and I got bronchitis. I have my lawyer right now trying to get me out of here. I’m very sick. I’m in Building 1 with all the girls who have health problems. A few weeks ago, when the outbreak hit really bad, they moved me to this smaller dorm where I’m less likely to get sick.
I had an asthma flare-up, and I was coughing. Everybody was staying away from me because they said I had the corona. I was using my asthma pump, but I was running out.
I told the staff I was having chest pain. I went to the medical clinic, and then I got the corona test. They quarantined me from Monday to Friday. They put me in Building 5 with other sick people.
My blood pressure was pretty high. That’s why they did four EKGs on me. They was going to take me out of the jail, but I told them that, you know, I got stabbed in my heart and my lungs. That’s part of why my heart rate is so rapid. Last Friday I got my results back, and they were negative. I was sent back to Building 1.
They got us on some type of restriction where we can’t go outside. You know, it’s quarantine. We don’t have us any masks. It’s really not safe for us to be in here. We have limited services. It’s really hard. You have to really be sick in order to get to the clinic. To get anything you want, like social services, we have to call in this number. It takes two or three days for anyone to respond
I don’t know if they quarantined the unit to keep people out or if they’re doing this because somebody’s in here sick. Everybody thought it was me. I’m having to, you know, go through a lot of physical and emotional abuse. I went through this yesterday where a girl was saying that they closed down the unit because of me.
You know, these times right now in jail, it’s really really hard.