You Think You’re Going Stir Crazy? What If You Were In Jail?

Most of us don’t come in contact with people in jail, don’t think about them, and feel that of all the things to worry about right now, prisoners are low on the priority list.

Not so for criminal defense attorneys. People in jail are our clients. And they’ve been calling every day telling us they’re worried as hell and being ignored.

Things are getting worse in jail week to week. Last Friday, the New York City Department of Corrections announced that 103 inmates tested positive for COVID-19.  That was up from 73 the day before. Eighty prison guards tested positive, up from 58 the day previous.

Prison is a petri dish for the spread of viruses because of the close sleeping conditions and lack of adequate medical care. Dorm rooms are often three rows of beds, 20 in a row, with less than 18 inches between them.

Personnel at Rikers Island (home to ten separate jails) can’t keep up. Their present safety measures — when an inmate coughs or shows other signs of coronavirus, he’s quarantined by being locked in a cell 24/7 –- are inhuman.  One client told me, “We’re being treated like animals. The guards won’t even approach us.”

Rikers is no longer permitting visits to the prison library, where inmates go to review the electronic evidence in their cases. Outside yard time has been cancelled as has inside time in the cell designated as a gym. Food is being served in individual cells rather than communal dining halls.

Many who suffer asthma, diabetes, or other medical conditions, have reportedly not seen doctors even when they’ve been coughing or wheezing.

One client told me the guards are refusing to bring them to showers.  Violence broke out in his section when frustrated inmates attacked the elevated “bubble,” a glassed-in section where correction officers monitor the halls. The inmates broke it.

Communication with the outside world has become tenuous. No visitors, even lawyers, are allowed. I’m frankly more worried about the clients I haven’t heard from, then the ones able to reach me. Some are older, or lost my card, or have no money to call. I can’t find out about them in the black hole that is Rikers.

Considering almost half of the inmates suffer mental health issues ranging from depression and anxiety to bipolar illness and schizophrenia, the coronavirus further imbalances their already delicate hold on reality.

New York City courts (covering the five boroughs) have been scrambling to figure out how to set up court so they can link inmates, attorneys, and judges by video for appearance dates. But so far, the success of the effort has been inconsistent and at times a downright failure in terms of connecting with Rikers. Hopefully, things will soon go better.

It’s tough on an inmate, not yet found guilty of a crime, to not see his lawyer or a judge, and have his case in limbo for who knows how long.

There’s been some movement with federal and state prosecutors to release a small percentage of the inmate population deemed nonviolent. Last week, the Department of Corrections released approximately 360 inmates facing lesser issues like technical violations of their parole.

One judge set free an older man charged with murder who was “at high risk for severe illness or death,” the judge wrote.

But the calculation of who deserves this benefit is narrow. Although some bails are being reduced, the indigent who can’t even put together $100 remain locked in, scared, and out of luck.

While it’s a hopeful beginning, the effort should be more widespread and the criteria more transparent. That way when a client calls me asking why the guy accused of murder in the next cell got out, but he can’t, I could give him an answer.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges should take a good hard look at every inmate and widen their perspective on who really needs to stay in jail while awaiting trial. No matter how strong the evidence, inmates must still be considered innocent unless proven guilty.

As a spokesperson for the court put it, “A jury should decide on a defendant’s fate, not a virus.”

Toni Messina has tried over 100 cases and has been practicing criminal law and immigration since 1990. You can follow her on Twitter: @tonitamess.

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