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Correction officers pepper sprayed eight inmates over the weekend when they tried to go to a jail clinic to check their temperatures after a potential coronavirus case surfaced inside their Rikers Island unit, department records show.
A so-called department probe team — like a jail SWAT squad — was summoned when the inmates refused orders to “lock in” inside the Anna M. Kross Center on Saturday night, according to an internal Correction Department initial report.
A department spokesperson said on Monday that abuse allegations were being investigated.
The incident began after an inmate in the housing unit who handled food was taken out when he exhibited flu-like symptoms, according to multiple sources. Other detainees then asked to have their temperatures taken by a medical staffer, two inmates told THE CITY.
As they waited to go to the clinic, the probe team arrived, spraying several of them directly in the face multiple times, the inmates said.
“The Department of Correction is treating us like animals,” said Angel Barbosa, 43, during a phone call from Rikers.
Barbosa said he was doused multiple times in the head with pepper spray as he crouched down on his knees with his hands up in a corner.
“There was no riot,” he added. “It was just a couple of inmates asking to go to the clinic.”
The next day, two housing dormitories of approximately 48 people each who are serving sentences of less than a year at the Robert N. Davoren Center, another Rikers facility, refused to go to the mess hall or to do their required daily work.
The inmates are being held with people who are showing COVID-19 symptoms, one detainee said. Their beds are 2 1/2 feet apart and they’re being forced to clean with only a few shared pairs of yellow rubber gloves for protection.
“We want to be released immediately,” he said. “Anyone serving a city sentence is not a high risk to the community.”
City-sentences cases include anyone who is serving a year or less for something like petit larceny, misdemeanor drug possession, misdemeanor assault, disorderly, or theft of services, including turnstile jumping.
“I’m worried that I’m going to get coronavirus and that I won’t be taken care of by this agency that doesn’t care about us,” he added.
He said one man in his dorm was bright red and dry coughing, surrounded by others, before being transported to a medical area.
‘People Are Gonna Die’
“He was in here two and half hours, feeling and looking very sick,” he said. “There are a lot of elderly inmates in here, there’s a 65-year old man who had surgery a week ago. He’s still here. People are gonna die.”
The unrest behind bars comes as the de Blasio administration struggles to curb the spread of the coronavirus among jail staff and detainees all held in close quarters.
All told, there were 39 COVID-19 cases among people in custody and 21 among staff as of Monday, according to the Correction Department.
There are also more than 130 officers and medical personnel under quarantine, along with 82 inmates, according to a source.
The city has released more than 60 inmates with health issues and low-level charges from jail and is looking at another 200 possible cases, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday.
Meanwhile, up to 1,000 inmates in New Jersey will be let go, based on an agreement with prosecutors and defense lawyers.
Inmate advocates are urging New York City to do the same — and more.
“What Mayor de Blasio is doing is not enough. He should be ensuring the release of the greatest number of people, as soon as possible, “ said a joint statement by Eileen Maher and Jovada Senhouse, community leaders at VOCAL-NY.
There were 666 people in jail due to a technical parole violation, like missing a curfew or meeting with a parole officer, as of Sunday. Also, 551 people are serving a year or less on city sentences for low-level offenses.
Advocates want the city to immediately release everyone from those two groups and to stop putting new people in jail amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Addressing the pepper spray incident, Peter Thorne, a Correction Department spokesperson, said safety is a top priority.
“We are deeply troubled by these allegations which, if true, do not represent the standard of conduct we hold employees to,” he said. “We are investigating this alleged incident.
Talbert Brown, 55, an inmate in the unit who has asthma, said he was waiting to go to the clinic when the probe team arrived Saturday.
“We were standing behind the gate,” he recalled. “They just sprayed us because we wanted to get tested.”
“They didn’t give us no warning,” he alleged. “I couldn’t breathe [afterwards]. My nose started bleeding.”
Afterwards, Talbert, who has been awaiting trial on a drug charge since February 2018, alleged he wasn’t taken to the medical clinic until Sunday afternoon.
“They are not giving us no medical attention,” said Barbosa. “They are just saying if you die, we die with you.”
Help THE CITY cover the coronavirus crisis: If you or someone you’re close to is incarcerated or works for the city Correction Department, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can reach Reuven Blau at email@example.com or 646-591-1256 and Rosa Goldensohn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 646-397-1795.
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