Rikers Island. Photo credit: Norman Walsh.
Stefan Outlaw had just recovered from the worst of his COVID-19 symptoms when he learned that a charitable fund had paid to bail him out of the Rikers Island jail. It was mid-March, and much of the jail population was quarantined in cells for 24 hours a day. Outlaw, age 29, was more than happy to get out.
But now he found himself in a situation that’s far from uncommon for people leaving jails and prisons in New York: On the street at 2:00 a.m. with no money, no phone, and nowhere to go.
By luck, a Rikers case manager had given Outlaw a phone number for Cayenne Doroshow, the executive director of a small community organization called Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society (GLITS). Still exhausted by the dragging symptoms of the virus, Outlaw borrowed a cell phone from a stranger and called Doroshow, who sent him a Lyft and the address of an Airbnb apartment near Central Park, in which GLITS will pay for him to stay — with the help of private donors and a GoFundMe campaign — until the coronavirus crisis abates.
The apartment is part of an effort — since taken on by the New York City government — to send people coming out of jail directly to hotel rooms or temporary apartments, rather than seeing them end up in homeless shelters or on the streets. The goal is not just to protect vulnerable individuals, but to avoid compounding a public health disaster by sending potentially infectious people from one coronavirus hotspot to another.
“This is life or death,” Doroshow says. “We’re giving people a chance to plan for a sustainable future.” GLITS is currently hosting nine people, all of whom identify as transgender, in individual hotel rooms and the Airbnb apartment.
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio issued his stay-at-home order on March 16, more than 2,000 people have been released from city jails — many of them through mass writ filings, individual motions, and lawsuits on behalf of people who are locked up on low-level charges or who have underlying medical conditions that make COVID-19 especially dangerous.
Even under the best of circumstances, many of those people would have ended up in shelters or on the street, says Victor Dempsey, a community organizer at the Legal Aid Society who often works with newly released inmates. Because of the pandemic, many more are unable to return to homes with elderly or medically vulnerable family members.
“We had families reaching out to us directly saying, ‘We’re happy and proud but he can’t come here,’” Dempsey says.
Over the past month, the city has expanded its use of hotel rooms to slow the virus’s spread. The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) is currently sheltering 6,000 people in hotels, including 2,500 who were there before the pandemic hit because shelters were full. Mayor de Blasio promised an additional 11,000 rooms for discharged hospital patients, medical workers, and those who need to isolate but can’t at home. That program stopped accepting hospital patients, however, after four people died in the hotels.
In late March, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) joined community organizations like GLITS in offering hotel rooms to jail inmates immediately upon release. Approximately 140 people have taken advantage of the city-funded rooms, which cost about $200 per person per night, including laundry and food, according to the Office of Emergency Management.
While the rooms were originally available only to inmates who were medically vulnerable, the program is now open to anyone leaving jail with nowhere else to go. Former inmates can stay “through the duration of the COVID-19 crisis,” says Maggie Halley, MOCJ’s director of communications.
Advocates for people in the criminal justice system say the hotel rooms represent a positive step. But many also contend that, on the whole, the city is doing a dangerously inadequate job of protecting thousands of people in two settings that often feed into one another: jails, and the crowded, dormitory-style shelters that are frequently the only option for homeless adults.
“As long as people are living in congregate settings, we’re not going to eliminate this virus,” says Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney for Legal Aid’s Homeless Rights Project.
On April 22, Goldfein testified in support of a City Council bill that would require the de Blasio administration to offer hotel rooms to all of the approximately 17,000 single adults sheltered by DHS, as well as the estimated 4,000 people who are unsheltered on New York City streets. At the hearing, a city representative said that the measure would be too expensive, costing nearly $500 million over six months. It is unclear how much of the cost would be reimbursed by the federal government.
Meanwhile, Goldfein says, far too many people continue to cycle in and out of city jails. And those who are homeless face an especially high risk of being incarcerated on low-level charges or technical parole violations.
The city is “still arresting people for nonsense,” Goldfein says. “There are still 4,000 people on Rikers who are being left at risk of death.”
As of May 3, there were 370 city jail inmates with confirmed COVID-19 cases, while 1,310 had likely been exposed but were asymptomatic, according to a daily report from the Board of Corrections. Nearly 210 of the city’s approximately 3,900 inmates were being held on technical parole violations with no open case. (Despite pressure from advocates, the city has not released the cumulative number of people who have been infected with the coronavirus in the jail system.)
The infection rate at the Rikers Island jail is now nearly 10 percent, compared to less than two percent in the city as a whole, according to an analysis updated daily by the Legal Aid Society. That analysis includes this statement from Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the agency’s criminal defense practice: “Stop sending people to Rikers and let these New Yorkers out immediately. Anything else is too little, too late.”
Public and correctional health officials have for weeks made the case that the only way to save lives in jails and prisons is to reduce the number of inmates as much and as quickly as possible. But public defenders continue to say that they have to fight far too hard for each release.
Other inmates, like Stefan Outlaw, have been bailed out by charitable funds that pool donations.
Outlaw had been on Rikers for less than a month, awaiting trial on robbery charges stemming from 2018, when he got sick with the virus. He spent a week sweating through fevers and body aches in a place where, he says, no one seemed to care whether he lived or died. “They don’t do anything for you,” Outlaw says.
When he first became ill, Outlaw says he was placed in a cell packed with inmates who had a variety of symptoms. Once his COVID-19 test came back positive, he was moved to a dorm reserved for people infected with the coronavirus. Medical care was minimal, Outlaw says, and correction officers, who did not have personal protective equipment, avoided coming into the room. The result was violence and intimidation among overcrowded and angry inmates, Outlaw says.
After seven days, Outlaw was moved back to the general population, where he and other inmates still were not provided with masks or other protective gear, he says. His release — and his rescue by GLITS — came soon after. “If not for this, I would have been in the streets,” he said.
While advocates say the city’s efforts to get people out of Rikers is far too small and much too slow, by one measure, hotel placements put some former inmates in a better position now than under normal circumstances, when they are released into a city with notoriously impenetrable housing market and few places to turn for help.
“I think what the city is doing is a huge improvement from before COVID-19,” says JoAnne Page, the president of the Fortune Society, which provides re-entry services to people leaving jails and prisons.
While New York City does not track the number of people who enter homeless shelters directly from city jails, a recent analysis found that more than half of people released from State prisons to New York City went directly to the shelter system, making up one in five shelter entrants overall. Nationally, formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.
It’s a fact that creates a vicious cycle, Page says, since former inmates who do not have stable housing are twice as likely to end up back in jail or prison as those who do.
Page’s fear, as the pandemic grinds on, is that when the city’s emergency measures fade away, the outcomes for people coming out of jails and prisons will be all the more dire.
“I give credit to the city and to MOCJ for using hotels,” she says. “But it brings into sharp relief the pre-existing crisis that is going to be worse. We already have a ballooning homelessness problem; now there will be a lot of people who haven’t paid rent for three months who have no income.”
“If you want to predict the future, you don’t need a crystal ball,” Page says. “We are cruising from a disaster into an exponentially greater one.”
Abigail Kramer is an editor at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.
This article was originally published by Center for New York City Affairs on May 5, 2020.