Rikers Island Chief Physician Warns Coronavirus Cases 'Growing Quickly' in NYC Jails, Says 20 Percent Will Need Hospitalization

The chief medical officer at New York City's Correctional Health Services is lambasting a suggestion from the city's district attorneys that health care at the notorious Rikers Island complex is sufficient to withstand the coronavirus pandemic within its quarters.

Dr. Ross MacDonald, who helms the division overseeing more than 43,000 annual medical admissions in New York City's jails, said a jointly released letter from the city's five district attorneys and a special prosecutor represented a "failure to appreciate the public health disaster unfolding before our eyes."

Three of the district attorneys' offices did not respond to a request for comment about MacDonald's criticisms. A representative for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said that he "will let the letter speak for itself." A spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance declined to comment.

On Monday, the district attorneys argued in a memo to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann that calls from criminal justice advocates to release large portions of the inmate population because of public health concerns were overblown.

The letter further objected to the prospect of releasing certain categories of inmates, such as sex offenders or domestic abusers, that it says were not winnowed out of the proposals for release.

"At this point, the seemingly haphazard process by which at-risk inmates are identified, and the reports that those released may include violent offenders," the letter states, "are creating a public perception that our city's jails may be incapable of providing sufficient health care for the remaining population of inmates."

The district attorneys also made clear that they believe "those who must be detained will receive the resources necessary to live in sanitary conditions with quality medical care."

However, the chief physician for the correctional health system disputed this outlook Monday night. MacDonald wrote in a thread on Twitter that, despite his division's having heeded calls from the district attorneys to follow strict guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection, "infections in our jails are growing quickly."

Here’s the important part: infections in our jails are growing quickly despite these efforts.

— Ross MacDonald (@RossMacDonaldMD) March 31, 2020

"This is not a generational public health crisis, rather it is a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen," he wrote. "It is possible that our efforts will stem this growth, but as a physician I must tell you it is unlikely. I cannot reassure you of something you only wish to be true."

The Legal Aid Society in New York City has been a fervent advocate of reducing the prison population during the coronavirus crisis, so inmates are spared from localized outbreaks that can prove more challenging to address in correctional settings.

"New York City jails have become the epicenter of COVID-19. It is imperative that Albany, City Hall, our local District Attorneys and the NYPD take swift and bold action to mitigate the spread of this deadly virus," Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society, said in a public statement. "Stop sending people to Rikers and let these New Yorkers out immediately. Anything else is too little, too late."

According to the group's analysis of infection data, there are about 167 individuals being held at New York City jails, the vast majority at Rikers, who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. This represents a rate of infection eight times as large as that of New York City and 78 times that of the United States as a whole.

"I can reassure my patients that I will get them the best possible care, but we expect that 20% of those infected will need our overburdened hospitals and 5% will need ventilators that many other citizens will also need," MacDonald wrote.

The state has already announced that about 400 low-level parole violators will be released in New York City. Vance, the Manhattan district attorney, has consented to releasing about 175 parole violators, in addition to dozens more misdemeanor offenders and pretrial detainees.

"In response to the unprecedented health risks of this pandemic, I believe we should use our discretion to recommend release of certain individuals from Rikers who do not present a clear threat to public safety," Vance emphasized in a letter to colleagues last week.

Rikers Island
The Rikers Island penitentiary complex in New York City. Ross MacDonald, who helms the division overseeing more than 43,000 annual medical admissions in the city's jails, said a jointly released letter from the city’s five district attorneys and a special prosecutor represented a "failure to appreciate the public health disaster unfolding before our eyes." EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty