NY Judges Release 122 Inmates As Virus Cases Spike In Jails

By Frank G. Runyeon
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Law360, New York (March 27, 2020, 4:26 PM EDT) -- New York state court judges ordered the immediate release of 122 inmates detained in New York City jails on Thursday and Friday, finding it was a violation of those vulnerable individuals' rights to lock them up during the coronavirus outbreak, which had infected 183 individuals in the jails as of Friday afternoon.

New York Supreme Court Justice Doris M. Gonzales ruled Friday to release 106 of 110 Bronx County inmates The Legal Aid Society had petitioned to release, deciding that the group, which was imprisoned on noncriminal technical parole violations, should be released given the spread of COVID-19 at local jails and the government's alleged inability to protect the population of detainees.

Separately on Thursday, New York Supreme Court Justice Mark Dwyer decided to release 16 of the 32 New York County inmates The Legal Aid Society had petitioned to release due to their fragile health, also siding with the defense counsel that the jails were so unsafe that keeping the men incarcerated during the public health crisis was a violation of their constitutional rights.

Justice Dwyer also spurred hopes that on Friday he may release nine others after he requested petitioners amend their applications with additional information on those men.

Public defenders have raised the alarm over skyrocketing infection rates in the city's jails.

On Friday, there were 183 COVID-19 diagnoses in New York City jails, 103 inmates and 80 staff, the Department of Corrections told Law360 — up markedly from Wednesday, when the agency reported 112 positive diagnoses, 75 inmates and 37 staff.

"This ruling is a substantial step forward towards getting our clients off Rikers Island, out of harm's way and back home with their families," said Corey Stoughton, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society's special litigation unit, in a statement.

"New York City's jails have now emerged as the epicenter in the United States for COVID-19 with an infection rate seven times higher than that of the rest of the city, higher than New York State and higher than the rest of the country writ large," Stoughton added, calling it "unconscionable that those in power continue to ignore this reality."

The rulings stemmed from emergency applications by public defenders earlier this week requesting immediate release of inmates "particularly vulnerable to serious illness or death if infected by COVID-19," according to language in both petitions for writ of habeas corpus.

Underscoring the need for an urgent response from the court, the petitions noted that a corrections officer with COVID-19 died on March 15 after having contact with inmates. The applications also noted that on March 18, Ross McDonald, chief medical officer for the city jails, called to release "as many people as possible" from the city jail on Rikers Island.

The Legal Aid Society filed another petition on Thursday seeking the release of at least 10 juvenile detainees, advancing similar arguments that they were particularly susceptible to the virus and that three employees in the city's Administration for Children's Services had been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of last Friday.

On Friday afternoon, ACS reported 3 COVID-19 diagnoses among 22 youth in its care at its Horizon facility "who are being closely monitored by medical staff," an agency representative told Law360 in an email. There are no reported cases among 62 youth at its Crossroads facility.

New York state reported 25,398 COVID-19 cases in New York City and 44,635 cases statewide on Friday as of 2:19 p.m.

The inmates in the New York County case are represented by Corey Stoughton, Marie Ndiaye, Lauren Gottesman, Michelle McGrath, Mary Lynne Werlwas, Veronica Vela, Kayla Simpson, Robert Quackenbush and David Billingsley of The Legal Aid Society.

The inmates in the Bronx County case are represented by Corey Stoughton, Marie Ndiaye, Lauren Gottesman, Michelle McGrath, Lorraine McEvilley, Elon Harpaz and Kerry Elgarten of The Legal Aid Society.

The juvenile detainees in the ACS case are represented by Lisa Freeman, Judith Stern and Christine Bella of The Legal Aid Society.

The city is represented in the cases in-house by corporation counsel.

The Bronx County case is People of the State of New York ex rel. Corey Stoughton on behalf of Elijah Little et al. v. Cynthia Brann, Commissioner, New York City Department of Correction et al., case number 260154/2020, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Bronx.

The New York County case is People of the State of New York ex rel. Corey Stoughton on behalf of Hogan, Jeffrey et al. v. Cynthia Brann, Commissioner, New York City Department of Correction et al., case number 451078/2020, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York.

The ACS case is People of the State of New York ex rel. Lisa Freeman on behalf of All Youth In Juvenile Detention v. David Hansell, Commissioner, New York City Administration for Children's Services, case number not immediately available, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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