A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office confirmed the arrangement but claimed it was not “COVID-specific,” pointing out that prisoners have been tasked with digging graves for years on Hart Island. However, the fact that they’re now being offered personal protective equipment to wear while they're digging the graves would indicate otherwise.
New York City is the owner and operator of a public cemetery situated on Hart Island, and they’ve long used prison labor to maintain it. In 2008, for example, prisoners from Rikers were burying around 25 bodies per week at the site, on average. The island was chosen as a final resting spot for bodies in a pandemic plan that was put together in 2008 by the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner. However, that report noted at the time that Hart Island’s limited burial space “may not be able to accommodate a large influx of decedents requiring burial.”
Right now, New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in America, with 38,000 people infected and deaths approaching 1,000 as of March 31.
Some experts believe that the prisoners would be smart to accept the offer and take advantage of the chance to spend time in the fresh air on Hart Island as the conditions within the prison continue to deteriorate. Rikers is overcrowded, and coronavirus infections are rampant there.
Bronx Defenders Executive Director Justine Olderman told The Intercept that CDC coronavirus safety protocols cannot be carried out at the prison. There’s a lack of hand sanitizer, she says, and people don’t have access to soap. Even if they did, many sinks are broken, not to mention the fact that it’s difficult to practice social distancing when there are as many as 100 people sleeping in a room.
Data from the Legal Aid Society shows that the prison’s population of 4,600 people has an infection rate of 3.6 percent. The New York Post reports that nearly 800 inmates are already in quarantine and there are 200 confirmed cases within in city’s jail system. Meanwhile, de Blasio has said that roughly 650 inmates have been released so far out of coronavirus concerns.
Reports have emerged that some prisoners are mixing shampoo with water in hopes of cleaning surfaces as concern grows that not enough is being done to stop the outbreak there, while inmates are also starting disturbances. The 88-bed contagious disease unit is already completely full there.
One former inmate who was recently released said that people are on top of one another no matter what they do there. He added that a lack of ventilation means that when any type of sickness is floating around, everyone gets it.
It’s not just inmates who are suffering; 114 corrections officers and 23 jail health workers have also tested positive for the disease. The situation in the prison is said to be increasingly tense. Prison staff are complaining about a lack of instruction on handling the situation, and they also say they haven’t been given the right protective equipment.
In recent days, New York City has released hundreds of non-violent inmates from Rikers Island. All were people who had been convicted of misdemeanors or certain nonviolent crimes and had less than a year left in their sentences.
It's clear that New York City is preparing for the worst, but if the situation at Rikers continues, there may not be enough people to dig all the graves the city could potentially need by the end of this devastating pandemic.
Sources for this article include: