The city’s Corrections Department has put a pause on all in-person visits to New York City jails until further notice thanks to the Omicron-fueled surge of COVID-19 infections.
The suspension of visits includes all in-person meetings, many of which will be moved to tele-visits, as well as congregate programs and services, including religious gatherings, just three days ahead of Christmas.
“It is extremely difficult for all of us to take these measures,” Corrections Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said in a statement Tuesday night. “The city has done an extraordinary job of keeping COVID at bay in our facilities and minimizing loss of life due to the pandemic, but Omicron represents a new challenge. We are taking these precautions once again because we know that they work and that they will make everyone safer.”
Starting Wednesday, the Corrections Department began offering tele-visits only for families and friends of individuals incarcerated at NYC jails. Corrections staff is working with individuals who made previously-scheduled in-person visits to convert those meetings to teleconferences.
You can schedule a tele-visit with an incarcerated person by visiting the Corrections Department website, nyc.gov/doc.
Meanwhile, the Corrections Department will modify services and programs for the inmates. Clinic access will remain, and chaplains assigned to jails may continue to visit inmates, at their discretion.
Imprisoned persons within the jails who are found to be positive for COVID-19 are being isolated in separate units to help limit transmission. The Corrections Department also stated that it’s continuing to encourage all individuals in custody to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even offering the same financial incentives made for other New Yorkers, including $100 gift cards.
According to Corrections Department and NYC Health + Hospitals data, most inmates in Corrections Department custody are not vaccinated for COVID-19. Only 44% of individuals currently jailed have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, though health experts advised that those who received both doses and a COVID-19 booster have the best chance of avoiding serious infection from the Omicron variant.
The vast majority of Corrections Department uniformed personnel are vaccinated, with 85% of members having received at least the first-dose. That comes after the city’s vaccine mandate for the Corrections Department took effect on Dec. 1.
The COVID-19 outbreak in city jails is particularly bad on Rikers Island, according to the Legal Aid Society.
In a joint letter to Schiraldi from the society and several public defender organizations, they cited city data which indicated a 17% COVID-19 positivity rate on Rikers Island as of Dec. 20. For months, that number had been hovering at about 1% before beginning to balloon just 10 days ago.
The Legal Aid Society letter charges that “the risks to the human beings in our custody are at a crisis level,” and the signers called upon the Corrections Department to immediately release incarcerated people and halt new admissions into New York City jails.
Eliminating in-person visits, the letter argues, will result in other problems.
“These measures will have considerable negative effects on a jail population that is still reeling from two years of COVID and a staffing crisis that has contributed to unprecedented levels of tension, anxiety, and violence within the jails,” according to the letter. “The consequences of removing these basic services and supports from those in our custody will be felt by both persons in custody and the officers who work hard every day to keep people here safe. We believe we have no choice.”