NEW YORK — Already, there have been 16 deaths on Rikers Island this year. Experts say a staffing shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic made already challenging conditions at the jail even worse.

Now the omicron variant of the coronavirus is threatening to overtake the notorious jail.

What You Need To Know

  • 21% of the population incarcerated at Rikers Island has tested positive for COVID-19

  • Elected officials are calling for a reduction of the population at Rikers

  • Less than half the population at Rikers is vaccinated

“Yes, we know it’s not March of 2020. But, unfortunately, some of the patterns are repeating itself, including a dramatic and dangerous surge among people on Rikers Island, where conditions were already in crisis," Public Advocate and candidate for governor Jumaane Williams said. "The percentage of cases has been essentially doubling overnight."

According to the city’s Correctional Health Services, 21% of the population at Rikers Island is now infected with the coronavirus, as of Tuesday, up from 17% the day before. And to make matters worse, vaccination rates remain low: 44.3% of the roughly 5,000 detainees have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine and only 38% have two doses.

Elected officials and advocates are calling for an immediate reduction of the population. Meanwhile, the city's correction commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, has suspended in-person visitation and group activities to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

"It’s clear that if we limit the number of people who step foot onto Rikers Island, it will be better to contain the spread of the virus," presumptive City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said. "Both judges and district attorney’s alike must be part of the solution by strongly considering alternative options such as supervised release."

Since the vaccination rate for the city as a whole is so much higher compared to the Rikers population, it’s unclear what the impediment has been to getting people the vaccine.

“What I can say is, from the beginning that island was treated as if it wasn’t full of human beings who live there and who work there; not just in who’s vaccinated, but even in who was given PPE and who was forced to work in conditions,” Williams said.

In response, the de Blasio administration says vaccines have been made a priority and were offered to every detainee upon entry. There are also vaccine incentives, like $100 cash and a $100 grocery credit for those in the community.

Even before the current crisis began, advocates were calling for decarceration on moral grounds, something law enforcement officials strongly disagree with.

So far, the mayor’s plan to close Rikers is on track. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has committed to the plan, but said it will be delayed due to the pandemic.


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