New York’s Legal Aid Society sued city and state corrections officials Friday on behalf of 116 New York City jail inmates, calling for their immediate release from city jails as coronavirus continues to spread.
The inmates in the suit are all medically vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus because they’re over age 50, have preexisting conditions or both, according to the filing.
The suit follows several petitions for writs of habeas corpus filed by public defenders on behalf of individual inmates in recent days, as coronavirus-based calls for release have increased from advocates and some elected officials.
On Monday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez joined prosecutors around the country in supporting the release of inmates who don’t pose a “physical threat to the community.”
The New York City Board of Correction, which provides independent oversight for the city’s jail system, has also called for a reduction in the jail population due to coronavirus, and Ross McDonald, chief medical officer of the city’s Correctional Health Services, called for help on Twitter, asking judges and prosecutors to “let as many out as you possibly can.”
After saying early this week that he would figure out how many jail inmates could be released because they were medically vulnerable or at low risk of reoffending, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday announced that 40 inmates would be let out of the city’s jails.
Criminal justice advocates objected immediately, calling his response “paltry.” They asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release thousands more inmates.
“There are far more than 40 people detained in New York City jails whose health and well-being weighs in the balance as the coronavirus continues to spread,” a coalition of groups said in a statement.
The Legal Aid Society said in a press release that, in addition to releasing more people, de Blasio needs to be clearer about his criteria and his plans for release.
In Friday’s filing, Corey Stoughton, attorney in charge of the Special Litigation Unit of the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice, summarized the fears about coronavirus spreading in jails, saying that inmates lack the resources to sanitize their surroundings or follow social-distancing recommendations.
“Continuing to incarcerate people who have been deemed by the CDC to be especially vulnerable to a deadly pandemic, in conditions where taking the only known steps to prevent transmission are virtually impossible, constitutes deliberate indifference to serious medical harm in violation of the United States and New York State constitutions,” Stoughton wrote.
Stoughton and her colleagues appeared in court Friday afternoon to argue their case. Prior to going into court, she said on Twitter that some releases were already taking place but more were needed.
Ellen Biben, administrative judge of the criminal term of Manhattan’s Supreme Court, has asked all five district attorneys in the city to help coordinate releases, court officials said. The goal is finding consensus so that parties do not have to physically appear in court to implement the release, Biben said.
The New York City Bar Association on Friday also called for the release of high-risk inmates and an overall reduction in jail and prison density, saying that the current situation ”poses a mortal health and safety risk.”
The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys UAW Local 2325, which represents lawyers and staff at 11 nonprofits in New York, wrote in a news release Friday that its members and court staff are endangered by the current method of criminal arraignments, in which the arrested person appears by video but all other parties appear in person.
Arraignments should be fully remote, union representatives wrote. They also called for a reduction in arrests and the increased use of desk appearance tickets.
A spokesman for the New York state court system said Friday afternoon that court officials are working to create virtual court parts.