ABC News Corona Virus Government. Response

Judge denies release of Rikers Island inmates over COVID-19 concerns

Twenty inmates wanted to be released early from the New York City facility.

Rikers Island inmates Jagger Freeman and Christopher Ransom, who are charged in connection to the friendly fire death of an NYPD detective, and 19 others were denied requests for their release as the novel coronavirus spreads in one of the largest correctional facilities in the world.

Queens Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Holder denied their release on Wednesday, citing the lack of proof that their detention was unconstitutional. Separately, Queens Supreme Court Justice Marcia Hirsch denied Freeman's release on Tuesday.

"Under these circumstances, petitioners have not shown deliberate indifference to their safety and medical needs by the Department of Correction during the COVID-19 pandemic and the petition is dismissed," Holder said.

Weeks after the coronavirus was first reported in the facility, district attorneys in New York City, jail officials and defense attorneys worked together to release over 1,000 inmates. The effort reduced Rikers Island's population to its lowest level since the 1940s and helped to prevent the spread of the virus.

As of Tuesday more than 330 inmates were diagnosed with COVID-19.

After Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz objected to the release of Freeman and Ransom in late March by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, the agency that oversees the Department of Correction (DOC), their attorneys filed writ of habeas corpus on their behalf to let a judge make the ultimate decision.

Freeman, 26, and Ransom, 27, are charged in connection to the February 2019 friendly fire death of NYPD detective Brian Simonsen.

"Without question, Christopher Ransom and Jagger Freeman are responsible for the death of my husband," said Leanne Simonsen, the widow of Brian Simonsen. "There is nothing that will ever provide me with complete closure as I go on without Brian. These cowards being behind bars and facing life in prison is however some measure of justice for Brian, his family, and myself. To think that anyone would seek the release of these murderers is a slap in the face to all of us who knew and loved Brian."

"New York City jails lack adequate infrastructure to address the spread of infectious disease and the treatment of people most vulnerable to illness," according to court documents filed by Legal Aid Society on April 6. "Based on information Legal Aid has received from its clients and from other defender organizations monitoring information from their clients, DOC is simply moving groups of people en masse into different housing unit's; without any change in the patterns of daily living that make social distancing impossible."

Legal Aid Society argued that it has reason to believe that there is an "ongoing shortages of basic cleaning supplies to disinfect housing areas, including housing areas where people with respiratory illnesses are currently confined, and many incarcerated people still do not have access to soap or hand sanitizer."

"Continuing to incarcerate people who have been deemed by the CDC to be especially vulnerable to a deadly pandemic, in conditions where preventing transmission is impossible, constitutes deliberate indifference to serious medical harm in violation of the United States and New York State constitutions," according to the defense attorney's petition.

Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, said in a letter to the court that it was "irresponsible" to request the release of Freeman and Ransom by using the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason.

"To seek the release of these two violent, cowardly criminals is irresponsible, insulting, and endangers every New Yorker and those in blue who proudly protect them," DiGiacomo said in a statement on Tuesday after Freeman was denied release by Hirsch.

Ransom's health condition was not specified in court documents, but he is classified by the Correctional Health Service (CHS) in the "highest risk category" to get infected by the coronavirus.

DiGiacomo applauded Holder for his decision.

Days after the original petition was filed on his behalf, inmate Walter Ance became the second Rikers Island inmate to die from the virus. The 63-year-old, who was awaiting trial for attempting to kill his estranged wife, had a "litany of health issues" and Katz refused to consent to his release.

"Mr. Ance died handcuffed to a bed. These avoidable deaths will continue to mount so long as our DAs ignore the reality that jails are breeding grounds for this virus, infecting our clients and Correction staff alike at an unrivaled rate," said Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society. "Regardless of the crimes our clients are alleged to have committed, no New Yorker who is seriously ill should face a death sentence at Rikers Island before a jury has even had a chance to judge their guilt or innocence. We extend our condolences to Mr. Ance’s family, friends and community at this difficult time.”

Katz said she is standing by her decision. "The stabbing for which he was incarcerated was the culmination of years of physical and mental abuse that the defendant allegedly inflicted upon the victim," Katz said in a statement.

Inmate Armando Santiago was also denied release after Wednesday's hearing. The 64-year-old was diagnosed with COVID-19 on April 1 and is classified by the CHS as high risk because he has Hepatitis C.

Santiago is awaiting trial for allegedly breaking into two homes in July 2019 and stealing jewelry.

Despite the Legal Aid Society's defeat on Wednesday, they're still pursuing to release as many inmates as possible. The attorneys sent applications on April 2 and April 8 to Governor Andrew Cuomo seeking emergency clemency release for 20 unidentified inmates.

ABC News' Aaron Katersky contributed to this report

What to know about Coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: Coronavirus map