Day 14 of Quarantine: Putting my criminal justice (and Law) degree(s) to some use (did i mention this was supposed to be a travel blog?)

Tomorrow, we officially enter week 3 of quarantine. I’m not going to lie, I’m finding I have a lot more to say than I thought I did about coronavirus. Dave and I keep saying we need to make an hour a day where we don’t talk about it at all because the amount of information can be overwhelming. The other day I actually looked for the minutes usage on my phone the other day because I call my mom for just about every piece of information I have to share. (But I don’t think they count phone minutes anymore lol). Today’s post is going to discuss the release of inmates in NYC & the impact of Coronavirus in the NYC prisons and jails. Instead of inundating my mum with knowledge of inmates & the criminal justice system of NYC, I thought I would share it with all of you.

Ok- basic background information on the criminal justice system in America for my non American followers and just a clarification for my American followers. Speaking of, last night, Dave and I watched Just Mercy, which I highly recommend. We actually had to read the book by Bryan Stevenson before law school, and I thought the movie was done phenomenally. It follows Bryan Stevenson, a man from Delaware who attends Harvard Law School. He ends up interning for the EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) and works there after law school. The movie follows his work with inmates on death row and the fight to end “mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality” But anyways I bring this up because we kept pausing it every half an hour to have a mini law lesson and why certain things in the film were happening the way they were. So I thought I would give you all a brief overview:

Overview: You commit a crime in NYC, let’s say Manhattan specifically. You get arrested. You are brought to one of the 77 precincts in Manhattan. After you are arrested, you have an arraignment hearing, You are informed of the charges against you, and you enter a plea (guilty, not guilty, or no contest). Once you are arraigned, and if you don’t take a plea bargain,(which can be offered at any point) you begin the trial process. This could be years long, depending on how many motions are filed by each party, if the parties cooperate with pretrial discovery & conferences etc. I read an article that said a man who was sentenced to 14 years served 7 of them in Rikers awaiting trial because he filed so many motions which caused delay in his case. Interestingly enough, the Judge said his seven years at Rikers benefitted him because of all the thoughtful and positive letters written from corrections officers about how he was a model inmate.

Does everyone know the difference between prison and jail? A jail, such as Rikers Island, holds people waiting for trials or sentencing. Prison, on the other hand, holds people that are serving out longer sentences. They tend not to be in cities (although there are some of course), but in my experience I’ve been to three that were literally in the middle of nowhere upstate NY.

Anyways, the reason I started writing this post, and how it relates to my last post, is that to help quell and contain the COVID-19 outbreak, the city had decided to release almost 300 prisoners from Rikers Island. Since I began writing this post, and am now writing it a few days later, I just got a notification over 650 inmates have already been released from NYC jails.

This made me think, what is going to happen to these people? I know releasing them is supposed to help contain the virus, by reducing crowding, but what if some of these inmates are already infected? Won’t that just be spreading the virus further?

I also thought about the situations they would be released into. I’m pretty sure that a jail won’t just release you to the streets, you would need to prove you have somewhere to stay after you were released. An article by the New York Post is claiming that recently released inmates are given cell phones, cab fare, and even hotel rooms. However, it is important to note that the released inmates who are given hotel rooms are the ones who tested positive for COVID 19 and they are being used to hopefully isolate the virus. Hotel rooms are also being used for those released inmates that are asymptomatic and homeless.

CNBC reported that all the prisoners to be released have been found guilty of misdemeanor charges, or non violent felonies and their sentences are less than one year. DeBlasio said he will focus on releasing people over the age of 70 or have any of the preexisting conditions that would make someone more susceptible to dying from COVID 19.

Reading another article (last week on the family zoom my aunt commented saying “I’ve been reading a lot of articles and starting every sentence with “I read an article that…”) from the Independent, a former Corrections Officer at Rikers pushed back against the release of the inmates. He spoke in great detail about the uncleanliness of the jail, and how close and cramped the different living quarters are. His suggested that instead of releasing inmates that might be infected with the virus, they should use part of the infirmary ward which isn’t used.

It’s hard to form an opinion on this, because I genuinely feel like I can see both sides of the argument. Rikers specifically (because it seems to be getting the most attention/there are the most articles about it) seems to already be a hotspot for the virus. As of March 25, 2020, Rikers Island had 52 confirmed cases of Coronavirus. There were another 96 people awaiting test results at this time. Unfortunately, it seems social distancing is an impossible in places like Rikers, where inmates eat their meals together, and sleep less than 3 ft apart from each other. Apparently, at Rikers, there isn’t even soap. Without basic hand-washing and social distancing, it seems that staying at Rikers at this time could in fact be a “death sentence” as one inmate put it.

According to the article, one estimate, “coronavirus was spreading through the New York City jail more than 85 times faster than the average rate of infection in the United States.” The article was published on March 27th and the amount of people who tested positive for Coronavirus increased to 103 (across Rikers, and other NYC jails). To try and prevent the spread, or at least slow it down, a part of Rikers which closed earlier this year, reopened, It is important to note also that hearings which would determine the release of some of the inmates have been stalled because of courts closing & only hearing certain types of cases.

While releasing almost 700 people from jail in NYC seems scary and like a large number to me at least, Los Angeles has released over 1700 inmates, and Iran has released 85,000. Even New Jersey is releasing over 1000 inmates over public health concerns. Ross MacDonald, the chief medical officer for Correctional Health Services in NYC tweeted saying, “A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient. What will you be doing? What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can. end.”

So where does this leave us? I certainly don’t want to see a breakdown of law and order in NYC. Which is something I am actively afraid of. Even though I know it’s probably unwarranted. The app Citizen is stressing me out though. It sends alerts for local police, fire, and EMS activity. When this first started, it was quiet. Surprisingly quiet, actually. And I even read an article that crime in NYC was down. However, my app keeps alerting me, especially at night, of robberies, muggings, and assaults happening around us. It’s not that uncommon, we don’t live in a *great* area, but I feel like I am more aware now of these alerts. At night, when Dave and I are watching a move, we hear police pull up on a relatively quiet 9th Ave to announce to the group of homeless men they must break up the group they are huddled in.

I guess what I’m saying, is that I hope the release of these inmates will be beneficial to stopping the outbreak of COVID19 and not to the detriment of safety in NYC. I am glad they are being housed in hotel rooms if they have nowhere else to go. But what an interesting and confusing time in history. Just Mercy made me think a lot about people that are falsely imprisoned, or shouldn’t be serving as much time as the legal system deemed they should because of the three strike law, or because of racial/financial inequality.

I hope you all found this information interesting. Would love to hear some thoughts in the comments! All the articles I used are hyperlinked in, and the information comes from each of those articles.

Stay safe everyone!

xx

j

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