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Dayquan Salaman doesn’t have hand sanitizer. He doesn’t have regular access to soap. He was only allowed to shower once last week, and he’s been wearing the same stinking clothes the entire time.
This is what Salaman, 28, told his aunt Wanda Salaman over the phone from the Manhattan Detention Complex, a municipal jail in downtown Manhattan. The MDC, known colloquially as “the Tombs,” is where people are typically held while awaiting a hearing or trial. Salaman is being held there for two months on charges of violating the terms of his parole, his aunt said. Salaman was placed into custody at the MDC about two weeks ago, before the de Blasio administration had begun to shut down the city in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Family members of those incarcerated inside the MDC report that there are cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, inside the detention complex and that some inmates are showing symptoms of the disease. They also report unhygienic conditions that will facilitate the disease’s rapid spread within the Tombs. They say that, in addition to limited soap and hand sanitizer, their incarcerated family members are not being given gloves or masks.
One mother, who asked to go by the name “Frida” to protect her and her son from retaliation from correction officers, reports that her son has told her that inmates are showing signs of the virus. “They have fever, aches, and are coughing,” Frida said. “And a handful have labored breathing.”
The MDC could not be reached for comment. The facility has routed all inquiries, including those from the press as well as concerned family members, to the New York City Department of Correction information line. The line has not been in service since Monday morning and is still disconnected as of this article’s publication.
In recent days, there has been growing concern about the possibility of a Covid-19 outbreak in a jail like MDC. “Coronavirus poses a tremendous safety risk for the people in jails and prisons across the city,” said Philip Desgranges, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union whose work focuses on civil rights and criminal justice. He added, “Incarcerated people are housed in tight quarters with little control over their daily interactions with others, and they have limited access to outside information and little ability to take preventive health measures.”
Already, at least 38 people have tested positive for the virus at the jail on Rikers Island, and, across the Hudson River, there have been reports of the virus at a detention center for immigrants in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Part of the difficulty of preventing the virus’s spread within the MDC is the apparent absence of testing within the facility, said two relatives with which The Nation spoke. The New York City Department of Correction says on its website that it is screening all individuals who enter DOC custody for Covid-19 as part of procedural health evaluations and has instructed staff and correction officers to “refer any person in custody who is exhibiting COVID19-like symptoms to [Correctional Health Services] for evaluation.” People incarcerated at the MDC have told their families, however, that there are no tests available at the jail’s medical center and that their symptoms are largely ignored by the staff.
Family members are concerned that they may have been exposed to the virus when visiting MDC before in-person visits were suspended on Wednesday, March 18.
“It’s difficult to tell even tell what’s going on,” said Frida. “And we’re low-income people of color, we don’t have access to the tests.”
Alongside people at Rikers, people within the Tombs have relayed a list of demands to the incarcerated persons’ rights group Free Them All for Public Health. The demands include: providing tests to all inside the facility immediately; providing hygiene products and sanitizing common objects, including phones, also immediately; and providing each person with a tablet so they can be in touch with their families and other people outside the jails.
“There is still time to take aggressive steps to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the MDC and other facilities,” says Desgranges, “but every day we wait will mean more cases, more lives in danger, and a harder fight to mitigate the spread.”
Meanwhile, family members and activists are calling for compassionate release for older inmates and those with preexisting health conditions. They are also asking that people charged with lower-level crimes—such as those held at the Tombs for misdemeanors, violations, or parole violations—be released as well. Dayquan Salaman is one of these: He is at the MDC for missing curfew at his halfway house, in breach of the terms of his parole.
“He only has two months,” said Wanda Salaman, “and these two months could be his life sentence.” She believes that her nephew should be released, given the circumstances of the pandemic.
“We are not trying to say that Dayquan is an angel,” she said, “but it’s not fair for him to die because of this.”
Dr. Ross MacDonald, the chief physician at Rikers Island, has criticized the DOC’s choice to continue holding people at the Rikers facility. “We will put ourselves at personal risk and ask little in return,” he tweeted on March 18.” But we cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of older men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom. Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day.”
Mayor de Blasio has ordered the release of 300 people across the entire New York City prison system, in addition to 75 who have already been released. New York’s jails incarcerate some 7,000 people, with the MDC typically holding upward of 900 people on any given day. As the governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo has the power to grant clemency and release, but has not announced that he will do so. The offices of both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio could not be reached for comment, despite several attempts to contact their press offices. Both Governor Cuomo’s press office and the New York State Department of Health directed calls to the coronavirus hotline, where attendants were polite yet unable to answer questions related to the prison system. The press agent for Governor Cuomo later said that she was not aware of any protocol in place around New York City’s jails.
The New York City DOC released a statement on its website reading: “The Department is committed to robust sanitation protocols throughout its facilities and transportation vehicles and has ramped up existing cleaning policies to combat the potential spread of the coronavirus. The Department has confirmed that its current sanitation formula is effective against the coronavirus.”
The DOC says that it is now offering soap and hand sanitizer to inmates free of charge, although that differs from what is reported by several family members of those within the Tombs. The DOC also says that it is now “cleaning and sanitizing all DOC housing units, dayrooms, and common spaces once per day” as well as “cleaning all shower areas three times a day.”
In the meantime, families are anxiously waiting to hear from their relatives inside the MDC. “My son is scared to death,” says Frida. “He told me that it looks like the only plan that the prison has is to ‘leave us to die in our beds.’”
Frida, Wanda Salaman, and other family members have been calling the MDC, trying to get answers as to when their relatives will get proper cleaning supplies or when the facility will begin testing for the virus.
“At this point,” Frida adds, “it’s like they’re being trapped in a burning building.”