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When the coughing began, four women slept in the cluster of four beds in Melinda Morales’ corner of the women’s jail on Rikers Island.
One by one, the other three got sick and were moved out of the dormitory. Then on March 28, Morales, 54, tested positive for coronavirus, her medical records show.
Now when she wakes up at night in a cold sweat, she pulls a gray Department of Correction-issue blanket tight around her, the plastic mattress sticky underneath her. The arguments of other inmates ring in her ears.
“I feel like I’m slipping through the cracks,” she said in a phone call Friday from Rikers. “And why? I don’t understand and I don’t want to die in jail.”
Morales is one of about 3,800 inmates who have not made it out of the city’s coronavirus-ridden jails — and one of the 378 still inside who tested positive for the virus.
A symbolic $1 would pay the bail for her alleged shoplifting crimes at Macy’s. But because the offenses are parole violations, a so-called parole hold from the state keeps her inside.
“I feel like it could be a death sentence for me,” Morales said.
Many Seek Release
The population of city jails has reached a historic low, down by more than 1,600 people since March 16, largely due to COVID-prompted releases. But despite efforts to free some inmates early, a number of aging and medically vulnerable people remain behind bars.
As of Sunday, 964 Department of Correction staff had tested positive for COVID-19, along with 158 city jail health care workers, according to a daily Board of Correction report. Ten corrections workers have died.
The DOC, however, has refused to release the cumulative number of inmates who have tested positive, publishing only the number in current custody. The city counts three deaths in custody, and will not make public the number of hospitalizations or pre-death compassionate releases granted to ill people.
The first man to die from COVID-19 in the city’s custody was incarcerated on a minor parole violation — as was one man who was technically released just before dying, according to a New York Times report.
Even when in a city-run jail, those with parole holds, like Morales, or with prison sentences need the mercy of the state government to get out from behind bars.
The Cuomo administration has said it would allow the release of some city inmates. Some 300 who were in city lockups have already had their holds lifted, according to the state Department of Correction and Community Supervision (DOCCS).
Asked about Morales’ case, a state prisons spokesperson said only that she remained incarcerated on her new charges and a parole violation.
Stole a Bike
Omar Haythe could be weeks away from leaving Rikers. But a parole violation also looms over the ailing 43-year-old, potentially keeping him from early release.
Haythe has accrued nine criminal possession of a controlled substance convictions since 1992, along with the criminal trespass and stolen property crimes common to those with a long history of substance issues.
He pleaded guilty in October to petit larceny for stealing an e-bike, and is scheduled to be released June 11 after having served eight months of his 364-day sentence, thanks to good behavior. But the crime itself was a parole violation, which could require its own punishment and keep Haythes incarcerated.
The Legal Aid Society is pushing for Haythe’s early release, citing medical conditions that include asthma and a bowel disorder.
“He’s in grave danger of serious illness or death if he contracts COVID-19 because of his underlying medical conditions,” said his parole attorney, Kirk Stadnika. “He’s in Rikers essentially for stealing a bike.”
‘Guys are Scared’
Two years ago, Richard Seaman, 57, sold three glassine bags of heroin.
The buyer, it turned out, was an undercover cop who had asked a friend of Seaman’s to help him score. Seaman was living in a homeless shelter at the time and had hoped to make $20 off the deal for his own heroin habit or for food.
He began a two-and-a-half year sentence for criminal sale of a controlled substance in the fifth degree in January, and is awaiting transfer to state prison.
Seaman’s lawyer plans to file for clemency with the governor.
Now in drug treatment, Seaman has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, asthma and a tear in his aorta, among other problems, medical records show.
He is spending his days in a special Rikers unit for veterans — he was in the Navy — where he said some bunkmates are in their 60s or 70s.
“It’s highly stressful,” he said. “These guys are scared.”
Craving ‘Peace of Mind’
Morales began using heroin at age 13 and soon started stealing from department stores to support her habit.
Her criminal record is all drugs and thefts. Over the course of her life, she has spent over 12 years in prison, including more than a year on parole violations.
“It’s the hardest thing to stop doing heroin,” she said. “You don’t have money, you have to do things to get the money to get the drugs.”
But before her latest arrest, “I was already starting on, like, having a little turn,” she said, hopeful that she can finally stop using, with the aid of a methadone program.
For now, she imagines a more modest improvement: being able to convalesce in a shelter isolation room, far from the din of the dormitory and the tough gaze of guards.
“Oh my God, I could think,” she said. “You can’t have a peace of mind here.”
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