When several people in a packed Bronx homeless shelter got sick with COVID-19 in early March, Levi Mitchell feared that would be his fate too.

So Mitchell, 54, who was on parole, left and spent a few nights at his brother’s apartment before couch-surfing at friends’ places. 

But the nomadic lifestyle made it difficult for him to constantly check in with his parole officer and update his address, said Mitchell, whose criminal case attracted national attention after his eight-year sentence for trying to buy toothpaste with a counterfeit $20 bill in 2015 was reduced to three to six years.

On May 31, Mitchell was sent to Rikers Island after he failed to maintain contact with his parole officer and live at the approved address at the shelter, according to the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. 

Criminal justice advocates contend that the state should stop putting people like Mitchell, who have not committed any new crimes, in jail for technical parole violations, especially during a pandemic. 

‘It Seems Senseless’

They are pushing a “Less is More” reform measure in Albany to overhaul the system. The proposed legislation would restrict the use of jail for parolees accused of technical violations like missing curfew, testing positive for drugs or alcohol, or changing residence without approval. 

“Rather than send them to prison they ought to provide them with services,” said Seymour James, who co-chaired the New York State Bar Association’s task force review last year of the parole system. 

The Rikers Island jail complex Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“It seems senseless to send people back to prison when they have not committed new crimes and are not endangering the public,” he added. The association last November backed the effort to scale back or eliminate jailing for parolees. 

The number of technical parole violators in city jails has gone down from 726 last November to around 200, jail records show. The drop is due to the Cuomo administration’s push to move people out of closed confines in jail to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Criminal justice activists hail the decrease but contend the number should be zero. 

“Nobody should be going to Rikers for missing appointments or not telling somebody they changed their address,” said Vincent Schiraldi, who served as probation commissioner during the Bloomberg administration.

“It’s crazy to be putting anybody in for that stuff,” he added.  

In at least two cases, jailing of people on technical parole violations has had deadly consequences. In April, Michael Tyson, 53, and Raymond Rivera, 55, both in jail on minor parole violations, were the first inmates to die after contracting COVID-19 in jail. 

All told, three city inmates and 11 jail staffers have died from the virus, according to the city’s Board of Correction and union representing correction officers.  

“It’s unconscionable that in the midst of a pandemic when everyone should be working towards decreasing the jail population, DOCCS continues feed New Yorkers to Rikers Island, ensnared on non-criminal technical parole violations,” said Laura Eraso, staff attorney with the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at The Legal Aid Society.

‘It Was Crazy’

Some technical parole violators say they have faced other dire conditions in jail amid the pandemic. 

Mitchell was arrested by the NYPD and charged with petit larceny on May 29. He was convicted and sentenced to “conditional discharge” on July 24. 

He spent 67 days in jail before he was let out in August and sent to a drug rehabilitation center in The Bronx. 

‘We had a fight because a guy sneezed on someone.’

“It was crazy, man,” he said, noting there were 32 people in his Rikers housing unit sleeping two feet apart.

“Guys [were] fighting with each other because they don’t want people on top of each other,” he said. “We had a fight because a guy sneezed on someone and he forgot to cover his mouth.” 

People in each housing unit also try to block new inmates, who may be sick, from being brought into their areas, according to multiple inmates. In some cases, correction officers have taken to transferring inmates in the middle of the night to avoid a confrontation. 

Meanwhile, the shelter he left was closed about a week after he fled, according to Mitchell, who said he heard stories of COVID-19 ravages. 

A Mother’s Fears

Like Mitchell, parolee Travis Simon struggled to escape a spiral of incarceration connected to addiction, the compulsive repetition of substance use despite harmful consequences. 

Simon was sent back to jail after he tested positive for marijuana and then tried to flee a midtown parole office in February. 

Travis Simon, right, was sent to Rikers after he tested positive for marijuana. Credit: Courtesy of Robin Monroe

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has so far declined an alternative to incarceration program, according to Monroe. 

“We will have to decline comment because no dispositions, including alternatives to incarceration, have been discussed on the [court] record at this point,” said Casey Murphy,  spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. 

In Rikers about a week ago, Simon was cut on the arm by another inmate who was trying to slash his face, according to his mother, Robin Monroe. 

“I’m just so overwhelmed by it, you have no idea,” she said. “Is he going to get out of there alive?”