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Feeling Vulnerable Behind Bars as Coronavirus Spreads on Rikers Island

Victor Chapman as a young man.
An undated photo of Victor Chapman as a young man.
Photo: Courtesy of Michael Chin

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Victor Chapman cleaned the Rikers Island cell where he was recently moved in the middle of the night as best he could, using a “watered-down” spray bottle of bleach correction officers gave him.

The 56-year-old has AIDS, and his T-cell count — an indicator of his immune system’s strength — is in the low- to mid-100s, which is dangerously low, records show.

Correction officers escort him via elevator to get his medication every day, a trip he fears will expose him to coronavirus.

“I have no immune system and I’m terrified that I’m going to wind up dying here,” told THE CITY in a phone call from the jail on Thursday.

“I feel like I’m just a number, a statistic,” he added. “I’m a person.”

As of Sunday night, 273 detainees, 321 correction personnel, and 53 jail health staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the Correction Department. A 53-year-old detainee died Sunday, the first COVID-positive death in city custody, and two workers have also died after contracting the virus — an investigator and a correction officer.

The city jail system’s top doctors have begged judges, prosecutors and other officials to release as many people as possible, saying the illness would spread “like a wildfire.” Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that 900 people had been released, and “there will be more ahead.”

Chapman is among those whom The Legal Aid Society, which represents him, says also should be freed immediately. City prosecutors oppose a wider release of inmates, saying it would jeopardize public safety.

‘End This Nightmare’

Dr. Rachael Bedard, director of geriatrics and complex care services for Correctional Health Services, Rikers’ medical provider, wrote in an open letter last week that Chapman is at risk of severe illness. She requested that “the courts reconsider the necessity of pretrial detention” in his case and for others in similar positions.

Chapman told THE CITY his criminal record is a reflection of his addiction to crack cocaine. He described the drug as a balm for past abuse and post-traumatic stress.

His most recent arrest happened just after 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 14. He’d gone into the Duane Reade drugstore on Madison Avenue, around the corner from the Guggenheim Museum, and allegedly tried to steal Tylenol and Advil, records show.

The plan was simple and routine, he said: Steal a few boxes of something at the drugstore and resell it on the street for $50 to $100, which would buy enough crack for the day.

But this time, when he was caught, Chapman drew a pair of scissors — which he said he normally used to cut tags off stolen items — and jabbed them toward an employee as they escorted him out the door.

That made the act, in the view of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, first-degree robbery, a violent felony punishable by a minimum of eight years in prison.

The district attorney’s office says Chapman is the kind of threat to public safety who must be kept incarcerated throughout the coronavirus pandemic, pointing to his long history of thefts, drug possessions and an attempted assault from 2001.

Victor Chapman and Michael Chin.
Victor Chapman (left) and Michael Chin in an undated photo.
Courtesy of Michael Chin

Chapman, who faces a minimum of eight years, if convicted, is being held on $50,000 bail. Prosecutors say he is violent and “has a terrible record of returning to court.”

The Legal Aid Society says keeping Chapman at Rikers amounts to a death sentence.

“The DA’s office has the power to end this nightmare for Mr. Chapman immediately and to save his life,” spokesperson Redmond Haskins said. ““People— incarcerated New Yorkers and DOC staff—are dying at Rikers. We implore the DA to do what is moral and right for our client.”

A Downward Spiral

Chapman grew up middle class in Houston, Texas, playing tennis and going to summer camp.

He came to New York dreaming of a career in design or the arts. He worked in high-end restaurants and even ran an art gallery in Australia with a former partner before things fell apart, according to a longtime friend, Michael Chin.

“This is a wonderful, wonderful person,” Chin said. “He’s kind to people, he’s very helpful, he’s done a lot of good things. He just got on the wrong path.”

“I used to listen to reports about people in urban inner city neighborhoods that were smoking crack cocaine and were addicted to crack and I just thought that it was the worst thing that you could ever possibly do, and I never imagined myself ever doing something like that,” Chapman said.

But memories of childhood abuse and a date rape, and dealing with HIV, all dragged Chapman down “a slow downward spiral,” he said. He has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, records show.

Chapman wants to get into a rehabilitation program, receive drug treatment, and live for a time in a supportive housing environment where he can get back on his feet. More than anything right now, he wants to get out of the COVID-19-infected jail.

Chin said Chapman has a place to stay with him in the Berkshires, if allowed. The two first met as waiters in Boston three decades ago at the height of the AIDS crisis.

Chin said he’s already lost enough friends to one pandemic.

“The people that are left that I talk to, that’s all we do, is talk about this one or that one,” Chin said. “Your life is a puzzle of all your friends, and when you get older, you can share memories, but that’s sort of been ripped away.”

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