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“Top Priority Is Release”: Will Rikers Island Free More Prisoners as 60+ Test Positive for COVID-19?

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As COVID-19 begins to spread in the U.S. prison system, calls are growing in the New York City epicenter of the pandemic to release people from Rikers Island, the second-largest jail system in the country. At least 39 prisoners and 21 staff at Rikers Island have tested positive. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday the city had released 75 people, but advocates are calling for the release of thousands more. We speak with Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Services and author of “Life and Death in Rikers Island.” His piece for The Hill is headlined “Coronavirus behind bars: 4 priorities to save the lives of prisoners.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This breaking news: The Olympics have been postponed for a year due to the coronavirus, the first time it’s been impacted by anything other than war.

Well, we’re going to turn right now to life behind bars, life and death. COVID-19 has begun to spread in the U.S. prison system. In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, at least 39 prisoners, 21 staff at Rikers Island have tested positive. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday the city has released 75 people from Rikers, considering releasing up to 200 more. But public defenders and advocates say the city must release thousands of incarcerated people to stem the spread of the virus and save lives. Rikers is the country’s second-largest jail system, with nearly 5,300 people. The independent news outlet The City reports correctional officers at Rikers pepper-sprayed eight prisoners this weekend when they tried to go to a jail clinic to check their temperatures after a possible COVID-19 case surfaced in their unit. This comes as New Jersey says it will begin releasing up to a thousand people from its jail system in the pandemic.

For more, we’re joined by Dr. Homer Venters, a physician, former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Services, his latest book titled Life and Death in Rikers Island, his recent piece for The Hill headlined “Coronavirus behind bars: 4 priorities to save the lives of prisoners.” And again, Juan González is still with us from his home in New Brunswick; Homer also joining us from his home, as people stay put to stop the spread of the virus.

Homer Venters, thanks so much for being with us. What has to happen now at Rikers?

DR. HOMER VENTERS: Well, the story of Rikers is a story of all 5,000 jails and prisons and ICE detention centers around the country. The top priority is release. We must get people out of these places, particularly those with health risks for serious injury and death. Beyond release, we also have to make sure that the people who are still behind bars have access today to hospital-level care when they become sick. We have to avoid the temptation to use lockdown as a public health intervention. It’s not. And we need to get the CDC and states to appoint high-level correctional health coordinators to make sure that these processes are happening and that patients who are behind bars don’t get a second level or lower level of access to healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Homer Venters, if you can talk about the — what we’re hearing right now, looks like 60 people, they say, have tested positive. Do the thousands of people on Rikers — are they being tested? I mean, people in the free world do not have access to these tests. Is everyone getting tested inside?

DR. HOMER VENTERS: Well, I haven’t been in Rikers Island. I have great confidence in the correctional health staff there. One of the things that’s unique about Rikers Island is that the health service is independent. It’s actually part of the public hospital system. And so, their approach to testing symptomatic people is rooted in what they’re doing in the rest of the community. So I have confidence that at Rikers Island, in that jail system, there is evidence-based approach to testing happening today.

But I will say that, as the doctors who lead that health service have said in the last week, they are not able to stop the spread of this virus. It comes from the community. It comes into the jails and prisons. It is impossible to keep this virus out of correctional settings. And so the safest and most pressing objective is to find people who have these risk factors for a serious injury and serious illness and death, and get them out of the system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Homer Venters, we only have about a minute left, but what is the normal health situation at Rikers? Isn’t the main treatment for illnesses at Bellevue Hospital, not on Rikers Island itself?

DR. HOMER VENTERS: Well, there’s an inpatient ward at Bellevue Hospital. There’s also the nation’s largest collection of negative-pressure cells, clinical cells, left over from the TB epidemic, over in the West Facility, called the Communicable Disease Unit, about 70 or 75 cells that can be used. These are rooms that people are put in for observation. I will say that there’s more resource, skills and smarts at Rikers Island in the health service than any other health service in the country. But those folks who run that service have told us what we need to listen to, which is you have to get these patients who are at risk off the island and out of the system. And it’s true all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Homer Venters, we want to thank you for being with us. There’s so much more to talk about, and we will. In the corporate media, the only reason they’re talking about jails is because Harvey Weinstein, apparently, at Wende prison, has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. Homer Venters is former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Services, author of Life and Death in Rikers Island.

I want to thank the miraculous, amazing Democracy Now! team for all of their work, at home and here. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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