New York City district attorneys are furious with NYC mayor Bill de Blasio over his decision to release a number of violent inmates amid concerns that coronavirus could spread like wildfire in the city’s prisons.
De Blasio unveiled the plan to release at least 300 inmates from the city’s notorious Rikers Island prison on Monday, but insisted that the “few hundred inmates” he was citing for early parole “are serving less than yearlong sentences for misdemeanors or non-violent felonies,” per the New York Post.
The controlled release, De Blaiso said, would be done “with the goal of reducing health risks in a manner consistent with public safety” and, in a speech Monday, the NYC mayor suggested that inmates would have their release approved only if they have less than a year left on their sentences.
But New York City DAs, in a vicious letter sent to the mayor’s office Tuesday, say they’re receiving requests from inmates jailed for violent offenses, some of whom could be let free, but posed a significant risk to public safety.
“Our review of the lists provided to date has led us to consent to the release of many hundreds of individuals due to their age and/or health condition; the nature of their charged crime; or the length of their remaining sentence,” the letter begins.
“At the same time, we want to make clear that the categories of those proposed for release have, in some instances, included individuals who pose a high risk to public safety,” they note, adding that the mayor’s office hasn’t always been receptive to their input. They “have communicated our concerns,” they say, “but these concerns have not always been heeded.”
The problem, the DAs say, is that the mayor’s office is telling the public one thing — that no inmate with a violent history will be released — but that the paperwork indicates something very different.
“As an example, when we learned last week that [NYC DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann] was about to use her authority to order an across-the-board release of hundreds of inmates serving city sentences, we were assured that the release would not include those serving time for domestic violence or sex offenses, given the risks to victims,” the prosecutors say. “Unfortunately, we later learned that such individuals were indeed included in the ranks of those to be released.”
“At this point,” the letter adds, “the seemingly haphazard process by which at-risk inmates are identified, and the reports that those released may include violent offenders, are creating a public perception that our city’s jails may be incapable of providing sufficient health care for the remaining population of inmates. We believe this perception is wrong.”
“Even at this difficult time, our society must have the ability to safeguard those who are incarcerated, to avoid violating their rights or endangering the community. In short, we should not have to make release decisions that we know will put communities at risk,” the DAs conclude.
Rikers Island poses a unique situation for New York City. The jail is decrepit and conditions there have concerned human rights organizations, even when a deadly pandemic is not sweeping across the country. Earlier in the week, the Washington Post reported that some doctors fear Rikers Island could become a “public health crisis,” particularly given that coronavirus is known to spread quickly in closed quarters.
The New York Times reports that, as of Monday, “167 inmates, 114 correction staff and 23 health workers had tested positive” at Rikers Island and around 800 inmates and staff are under quarantine.