Rikers Corrections Officer: We’re Being Told to Work Even If We Have Coronavirus
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Rikers Corrections Officer: We’re Being Told to Work Even If We Have Coronavirus

The enormity of the…

We spoke to a captain in New York City’s Department of Correction — a Black man in his early forties who is understandably concerned about repercussions should his identity become known. In light of that, we decided to preserve his anonymity.

Being a corrections officer is a thankless occupation. Firefighters are the bravest; police are the finest; corrections are the forgotten. This has never been more evident than with New York’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’ve been a New York corrections officer for 11 years. For the entirety of that time, I’ve worked on Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest jails. I first heard about the coronavirus at the beginning of the year. Like most of us, I didn’t know much about what it was or its potential danger. All I knew was that there was an outbreak on the other side of the world that people had begun keeping an eye on. It meant little to me.

I’m an essential employee. Corrections officers are indispensable. When something goes down, there’s no calling out sick or staying home to keep my family safe. I have to report to risk every single day. Officers like me have to ensure that chaos isn’t a side effect of a global pandemic.

Which is why I’ve been on my regular schedule — despite having symptoms of Covid-19.

A month ago, I arrived at Rikers for my scheduled shift. Over the previous few weeks, several officers had already gotten sick, but by the time I reported that day, roughly 40% of Rikers’ staff would become unavailable due to the virus.

I walked into the visitor’s area outside of the jail, and a civilian staffer stepped up to take my temperature. I didn’t feel sick, but the thermometer read 101 degrees.

If I worked anywhere else, I would have been sent home and had a two-week self-isolation. A fever, even a low one, is pretty much the first symptom you can attribute to the coronavirus. If you’d rather be safe than sorry, a 101-degree fever means it’s time to isolate.

Instead, I was told to sit and drink a glass of water. Every 10 minutes, my temperature was taken again. After a few tries, my temp fell to 100. Then to 99. That was close enough for them; I was then told to report to my shift.

I probably went back up to 101 within an hour.

Over the coming days, I would lose my sense of smell and taste — another symptom that would eventually be closely associated with Covid-19. My fellow officers would be also urged to continue working, even those who had tested positive for the virus. In some cases, this included working triple shifts for nearly 20 hours, without meals or basic protection like masks.

Thankfully, my symptoms subsided without becoming too severe. I’ve managed to avoid exposing my wife and infant son, who spends the majority of the week with his grandparents because of our work schedules — but it remains a concern. What’s more of a concern is my mental health. That can be a lot to manage for any corrections officer on even the best day, and the current situation is becoming too much to bear.

This isn’t a complaint. I know what I signed up for. But in times of crisis, I expect my higher-ups, from shift supervisors to the president of the United States, to have a plan. And the fact of the matter is there is zero leadership.

I work in a department that is nearly 60% Black but hasn’t seen a Black commissioner in 30 years.

I work for a commissioner who essentially has gone AWOL during this crisis. She has made no public statements and refused repeated requests from the press until two days ago.

I work for a governor who, while being applauded for his handling of the epidemic, suggested having inmates make hand sanitizer — an item they themselves would not have access to.

I work for a president who has managed to make a global pandemic a showcase for his own narcissism.

To say there is a crisis of confidence is an understatement.

The last time we faced an impending pandemic was more than a decade ago with the H1N1 virus—at a time, in my opinion, when the United States had more capable leadership and the New York Department of Corrections was more centralized, with Rikers being the main hub. Both of these factors made H1N1 far less of a threat — because an effective plan was put in place.

When you work in corrections, you quickly learn that protocol is what keeps you and the inmates safe. If you want to know how good a jail is, look at its plan of action and the leadership’s ability to enact that plan. On both counts, New York has proven itself lacking. Policy change has been slow and in some cases too late, resulting in increased infections among inmates and officers. In the face of a virus that depends on human contact to spread, only in the past week have we actively minimized inmate transfers between jail buildings and dorms, which can result in cross-contamination. This cross-contamination is a danger outside Rikers, too: Inmates who tested positive, including Harvey Weinstein, have been transferred to state prisons.

While some inmates are quietly riding out the pandemic, others are taking advantage of a weakened staff and the subsequent lack of repercussions: They cough, spit, and throw bodily fluids at us. It is biological warfare of the worst kind.

Last week, there was a fight in one of the dorms at Rikers. Normally, protocol dictates that the inmate involved has to be transferred to a different dorm, but an inmate in the other dorm told me they were all waiting for test results, and if I transferred in a new inmate, it would reset their quarantine. Eventually, making choices like this won’t be an option. Yes, these are prisons, but inmates are human beings — and they’re still a vulnerable population.

So far, six of my fellow active officers, a captain, and one inmate has died from the virus. While this may seem like a small number compared to the roughly 10,000 uniformed corrections officers in New York City, believe me that this number is a miracle — a miracle born from a workforce fighting a bureaucracy that has forgotten and failed those of us on the front lines.

The number of infected staff and inmates continues to balloon. Those of us who aren’t infected, or are at least healthy enough to work, are using PTO and sick days ahead of our scheduled time off to avoid working double and triple shifts. By my estimate, Rikers will be in full lockdown within a couple weeks.

While some inmates are quietly riding out the pandemic, others are taking advantage of a weakened staff and the subsequent lack of repercussions: They cough, spit, and throw bodily fluids at us. It is biological warfare of the worst kind.

While it’s easy to believe the pandemic created this strain on the jail system, the truth is Covid-19 merely exposed holes that were already there. First, there is the phasing out of Rikers Island in favor of smaller jails and the subsequent shifts in personnel. Then there is a commissioner who has become known for her absence and a bureaucracy that makes its officers sue to acquire basic pandemic necessities, which has put officers and inmates in very real danger.

As a Black man in law enforcement in a department that is almost 90% non-White, supervising an inmate population that is also mostly non-White, I know what this is. Bias is playing a huge role in how this pandemic is playing out in the jail system.

Corrections officers have been painted with the broad brush of corruption and ineptitude. More often than not, it is Black officers who are subjected to these generalizations. On television and in the movies, we are the de facto bad guys. There is at least one corrupt officer in every prison movie ever made, eager to participate in graft and abuse. Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot and justify these portrayals.

The truth is we work in a very flawed yet necessary system. We do so as a means to provide for our families, maintain the safety of the inmates we are charged to supervise, and come home safe ourselves.

Give us a workable plan, and I promise we’ll make it to the other side of this crisis.