Judge rules COVID prevention on Rikers Island is adequate

Inmates' attorneys argued the Department of Correction is unable to maintain social distancing due to overcrowding


By Stephen Rex Brown and Chelsia Rose Marcius
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — A federal judge ruled measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus on Rikers Island are adequate Friday, but predicted a long legal battle over whether jail officials responded to the pandemic with necessary urgency.

Manhattan Federal Judge Katherine Polk Failla’s decision was a defeat for inmates’ attorneys, who argued that the Department of Correction is unable to maintain social distancing due to overcrowding. They had sought an emergency order imposing additional measures to prevent COVID-19 infections.

Failla said the city had shown there were adequate “levels of planning and concern” about the outbreak.

“DOC’s policies and responses are themselves evolving as new information comes in,” she said, reading a lengthy decision heavy on legalese about incarceration.

The city’s jail population of nearly 5,450 inmates has continued to balloon in recent months, sparking serious concerns that inmates cannot socially distance inside the facilities.

“The Court confirmed that in a number of areas DOC has been proactive in developing and taking appropriate safety measures during the pandemic. DOC will continue to assess the conditions in its facilities in connection with the relevant guidance from its public health partners to ensure the health and safety of everyone on Rikers,” city Law Department attorney David Thayer said.

Correction Department Commissioner Cynthia Brann told the city’s Board of Correction that the agency has 1,400 fewer uniformed staffers than in January of last year, making it impossible to space people out.

“I cannot commit to 50% population in the dorms because of our staffing issues,” she said during a Feb. 9 board meeting.

While the judge declined to order DOC’s policies, she said inmates’ attorneys could gather evidence on the jail’s coronavirus response. She said she anticipated “a lengthy jury trial” over the issue, though that could be months if not years away.

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