“I’m Detained at Rikers Island and I’m Sick With Coronavirus”

New York’s jails have become a focus of COVID-19, with 103 inmates and 80 staff testing positive already. One Rikers Island detainee told Jacobin about the outbreak in the prison — and the inhumanity of trapping people in a hotbed of infection.

Rikers Island prison seen from the air. Tim Rodenberg / flickr

My first symptoms was like a sore throat, sneezing, runny nose. I had fatigue and a bad headache, too.

Last week, before I felt sick, I was put on sanitation duty. They had us doing last-ditch efforts going around the whole jail, like spraying a chemical that kills coronavirus and also spraying bleach. We were spraying all the bars, the correction officers’ keys, the door handles. But it was a last-ditch effort.

Me and an officer I was working with was talking about the coronavirus — how it was like overrated and stuff because it’s not deadly. She joked like, “Yeah, that’s true, because I’ve been around people that’s positive, and I feel fine.”

On March 19, I started feeling sick, and I went to the Rikers clinic. I told the doctor, “I don’t feel regular. I would like to get tested for the coronavirus.”

They told me they don’t do testing. They gave me some medicine for nasal congestion and a sore throat, which didn’t help me at all. They sent me back to my housing unit. And because I think I was one of the first ones to get sick, and I think I got like two or three more people sick in the house. They was coughing, and one person started having muscle aches like me.

Two days later, on Saturday, March 21, I went down to the clinic again, and my temperature was 100.9. That’s when they took me more serious. The clinic gave me two ibuprofen, and my temperature went down to 100.

What happened next was some improvised, unconstitutional, and inhumane things. They quarantined me and two other men that night, March 21. They sent us down to quad 14 lower — a housing unit that was just recently closed. They opened it up just for us three.

When we got there, it was inadequate. It didn’t have none of our minimum standards: no hygiene products, no toothbrush, toothpaste, soap. We couldn’t get a shower. We couldn’t get our property. They didn’t allow us no phone call.

And we was quarantined, so obviously we don’t feel good. But they didn’t give us no medical attention, we didn’t see no nurses or doctors while we were down there. They wasn’t taking us seriously.

They finally moved me to quarantine by myself in another facility. But I feel like I’m not getting the proper medical treatment here either. They couldn’t check my vitals for the first few days: they didn’t even have a thermometer. Then they started checking my vitals two, three times a day — just my blood pressure and my heart rate. They started giving me Theraflu and ibuprofen, but that’s not working.

They finally tested me for the coronavirus on Monday night. They said the results take about seventy-two hours — so that was supposed to be Thursday. But it’s Friday night now, and I still didn’t hear nothing. And I won’t hear over the weekend because they says it only on business days.

“If I do have the coronavirus,” I asked the nurse, “will I be transferred to a hospital?” And he said no — I’m more than likely going to stay here.

The correction officers have been very kind and helpful, but some of them are not taking it serious. They’re not wearing their masks and gloves. They think it’s a joke, and I be telling them, “This is serious, man. I thought it was a game, too. I’m twenty-eight. I’m healthy, I exercise, and I feel bad. I never felt this bad in my life.”

It’s scary. This morning, I passed out for the first time in my life. I woke up around four this morning to use the bathroom. My feet and my ankles were tingling and numb. I got up, walked to the door, and I called the correction officer. As I started talking to him, I began feeling really light-headed. I regained my composure for a minute. But then I dropped and hit my back hard on the door. That was a really scary feeling right there.

Today, I told the doctors about me passing out, but they didn’t do nothing. It feels like nobody is taking it seriously. And I still have my little cough, I still have my fatigue. I’m really hot right now. I can feel I got a fever.

I want people to know that it’s impossible for us to take care of ourselves in prison. It’s too congested. And the Department of Corrections is not prepared to handle this crisis. And this is an inhumane crisis.

And I want people to know that they’re doing illegal things, like how they quarantined us in a housing unit with no hygiene products or soap or any of our property. That they didn’t let us make phone calls during that time.

I want people to know what’s happening in here: it’s not okay, and it’s not normal.

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Jojo Goldman is currently detained at Rikers Island prison.

Rosa Schwartzburg was a Fulbright Scholar to the Netherlands in 2018 and received her MA from the Central European University in Budapest. She is currently at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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