NEW YORK — For one Rikers Island correction officer, the low point came when he and his wife were both extremely sick with the coronavirus. She could hardly breathe and begged him to make sure she was not buried in a mass grave, he recalled. He was sure he had contracted the disease working in the jailhouse, where supervisors had discouraged him from wearing a mask.
“I’m looking at the person I care most about possibly dying from this thing I brought home,” he said, choking back tears. “That to me is the scariest thing I ever faced.”
Another officer at the Rikers jail said he worked for nearly two weeks while feeling ill but received no help from the jail’s administrators in getting a test. A third, who delivered mail to people in custody, some of them sick, was told he could not use a mask that he had at home but had to wait for a city-issued one. He, too, became infected.
The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on New York City’s 9,680 correction officers and their supervisors, who, like the police and firefighters, are considered essential workers. So far, 1,259 have caught the virus and six have died, along with five other jail employees and two correctional health workers. The officers’ union contends that the death of one other guard is also the result of COVID-19.
The virus has sickened more correction officers in New York, the center of the pandemic in the United States, than in most other large American cities, including Chicago, Houston, Miami and Los Angeles combined, according to data collected by The New York Times.
A majority of the officers in New York City are black and Hispanic and come from neighborhoods with high rates of COVID-19. Inmates have also have been hit hard: 545 have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic started, officials said. Three have died in custody, and two succumbed within hours of being released.
Correction officers and union officials have blamed the jail system’s management for the high number of infections. The union points to the department’s practice of asking officers to return to work after they recovered from the illness even if they had not yet tested negative for the virus. And they cited delays in providing many officers with protective gear during the critical month of March and failures to notify guards about colleagues who tested positive for COVID-19.
They also have said that extra-long work shifts — sometimes 24 hours at a stretch — contributed to the epidemic among officers. At the peak of the epidemic, 36% of the uniformed jail staff called in sick, leading to long shifts for those still on the job.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokeswoman, Avery Cohen, said that the health of correction officers was the administration’s “No. 1 priority” and that the city had supplied “ample amounts of masks and protective equipment, access to testing and health screenings before shifts.”
The city correction commissioner, Cynthia Brann, in testimony last week before the Board of Correction, a watchdog agency overseeing the jails, said all staff members are screened for fever when they arrive at work, common areas are sanitized daily and everyone in the jails has been required to wear masks since April 3.
“We have fielded inquiries from correction systems around the country that are looking to learn from our successes and modify their operations to mirror ours,” she said.
Correction officers and union leaders acknowledged that in recent weeks the department has taken some steps to curb the epidemic, providing more protective equipment and testing, but they say those measures came too late for many officers and only after the union had sued the city.
“If we had better leadership, I believe we could have gotten through this a lot easier,” said Elias Husamudeen, the president of the correction officers union. “I believe there is a possibility, maybe, not as many people would have been affected by this thing.”
The New York Times interviewed several correction officers, their spouses and union officials who provided a glimpse of what it has been like to work in the city’s jails in the midst of a pandemic while also trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from management.
A Struggle to Get Tested
As the virus swept through the jails in March, one of the biggest complaints among officers was the lack of testing. Several said they sought tests at state-run sites, but, like many people, they were turned away.
One veteran officer said he lost his sense of taste and smell in mid-March, then got a slight fever. He went to a drive-thru testing site, but the medical staff, seeking to conserve tests, told him to quarantine for 14 days instead.
Without a positive test result, he was required by his superiors to continue to work, and his symptoms worsened, he said. He had a cough and was sneezing. He did not have a mask, he said, or access to hand sanitizer.
“Inmates were dropping like flies” on the cellblock where he worked, he said, and every day he saw several transferred to a different jailhouse where people showing symptoms of the virus were being isolated. Some were also sent to a hospital where inmates with COVID-19 were being treated.
Yet, few jail staff members had received masks, he said.
Nearly two weeks after his initial symptoms, the officer was ordered to go home, he said. His cough had worsened. He had chills and a fever. He felt incredibly weak. In late March, he finally managed to get tested in Queens and learned he had the virus.
He was sick for about three weeks. “It was unbearable,” he said. “It was like breathing through a straw. You feel helpless.”
On April 2, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association sued the city, arguing it should provide protective equipment and testing to all officers. A week later, the correction department arranged for guards who wanted a test to receive one at clinics run by Northwell Health.
Before those tests became available, some officers were taking extreme steps to shield their loved ones from the disease.
The wife of a second correction officer said a number of her husband’s colleagues became sick with COVID-19, and he tried in vain to get tested at urgent care centers but was turned down because he had no symptoms. They have two children, one of whom has asthma, she said.
For weeks, she said, she and her husband had been living like “two ships passing in the night,” rarely seeing each other. He works nights, and when he comes home, he changes clothes, then sleeps in a guest bedroom.
“This is worse than anybody anticipated,” she said. “The department is not protecting their officers.”
Three weeks ago, he received a letter from the Department of Correction notifying him that on March 20 he had come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“We’re both on edge,” she said.
Putting Lives at Risk
A third correction officer, who is 33, works in a jailhouse mailroom and was delivering letters to dozens of inmates even as the coronavirus began to sicken many people in the jail in mid-March.
On his rounds, he walked through areas where inmates were being tested for COVID-19 without a mask. His supervisors had told him, he said, that he could not wear a mask he had at home, without saying why.
“I was scared,” he said. “I knew eventually I was going to get sick.”
He washed his hands every 10 minutes and avoided touching doors by waiting for someone else to open them. As a precaution, he had stopped visiting his parents, who are both diabetic. One of his uncles had died of the disease.
At the end of March he received a mask from the city, but no gloves. Two days later, he developed a cough, a sore throat and he felt dizzy. He knew he had delivered mail to people in custody who had the virus, including Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer convicted of rape.
A test later confirmed what the officer believed: He, too, had the coronavirus.
Brann, who declined multiple requests for an interview, said in her testimony that she first required some jail staff members and people in custody to wear masks starting on March 11, a month before doing so was recommended for the general public. By April 3, she said, everyone in the jail was required to wear them.
That change came a day before a judge ordered the city to provide officers protective gear, union leaders said. Guards in jailhouses housing people with the coronavirus are given high-quality N95 masks. The rest receive surgical masks. A Board of Correction report released last week said some inmates and guards were either not wearing the masks or wearing them incorrectly.
Two weeks after the officer in the mailroom became ill, a city doctor called him to see how he was doing. He still had a slight fever, but the doctor told him to return to work anyway, he said. The officer refused. Tests in late April showed he still had the virus.
“I’m not going back until I know I’m negative,” he said. “That’s ridiculous and irresponsible. They’re literally putting people’s lives at risk and not just the inmates — you’re bringing it back home.”
‘The Scariest Thing’
The officer whose wife became gravely ill said he tried for weeks to protect her. As soon as he walked into his apartment in southeast Queens after a double shift at Rikers, he stuffed his uniform, shoes and underwear into a closet, then sanitized everything he touched — doorknobs, faucets — and took a shower.
At work he wore an N95 mask that he had purchased. He stuffed alcohol pads into his pocket and as many plastic gloves into his waistband as would fit. He hooked a small bottle of hand sanitizer onto his belt. When he got to his post, he frantically cleaned the desk and phone with an alcohol pad.
During lunch, he discarded the plastic gloves, washed his hands in a bathroom and used a tissue to open doors and pick up things.
In late March, he began to feel worn down. He attributed it to having worked a number of 16-hour shifts as more of his colleagues began to get sick. But then he tested positive for the virus. He had chills and body aches, he said. He coughed so hard that his rib cage hurt.
Soon his wife, who has a chronic respiratory illness, became sick too, and had trouble breathing. He took her to a nearby hospital where she learned she had COVID-19 and pneumonia, he said. They wanted to admit her, but she refused, telling the doctors she would rather die at home with her husband.
For days, he worried she might not make it, he said. She needed help walking. Even small tasks left her extremely breathless. One day, she implored him not to let her be buried in a mass grave.
After three difficult weeks, their symptoms improved. Though he still had a cough, and his doctor wanted him to be retested before he returned to work, a city doctor cleared him for return sooner.
Worried about being reprimanded, he went back to work several weeks ago against his doctor’s wishes, he said. He said not much had changed. The department has supplied him with a surgical mask, but he still buys his own N95 masks at inflated prices.
The cellblock where he works was placed in quarantine after an inmate was suspected of having the virus. Some of the inmates, he said, appear “rundown and are bundling under whatever blankets they can get.” Throughout the night, he can hear coughing.
“Each cough,” he said, “is worrisome.”