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'You Just Get Written Off': One Inmate On Life On Rikers During The Pandemic

A view of the entrance to Rikers Island penitentiary complex.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP via Getty Images
A view of the entrance to Rikers Island penitentiary complex.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, prisons and jails remain some of the most vulnerable places for its transmission.

New York City jails are dealing with an outbreak of their own: The Department of Corrections told NPR it's dealing with 364 confirmed cases among inmates and already has two deaths as of April 16.

Rikers Island Jail is the city's most infamous facility. Prisoner Daryl Campbell is currently under quarantine after another inmate came down with a high fever.

"We're already the forgotten culture, the people that are in jail. It's like you just get written off," he says.

Campbell, also known as Taxstone, hosted the popular hip-hop podcast Tax Season before he was arrested in 2017 in connection with a shooting. He's still on Rikers awaiting trial on murder charges and he says inmates are not being given basic protective gear.

"The governor actually says 'Yo, we're going to be making a hand sanitizer and stuff like that,' " Campbell says. "And I said, 'That's cool.' You know, the prison is making hand sanitizers and helping keep everything clean and saving people. But I said, 'Wait up, when are we going to get hand sanitizer? When are we going to get extra sanitation things to clean things? When are we going to get protective gear?' We didn't receive this and that's when I realized that we really didn't exist in this world."

The New York Department of Corrections told NPR that inmates have access to hand soap and water and they are distributing masks to all inmates and staff. The city also said that it has reduced the jail population by more than 1,000 people.

Daryl Campbell, who also goes by Taxstone, hosted the popular hip-hop podcast Tax Season before his 2017 arrest. He's still awaiting trial.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Daryl Campbell, who also goes by Taxstone, hosted the popular hip-hop podcast Tax Season before his 2017 arrest. He's still awaiting trial.

But Campbell disputes the amount of help inmates are receiving.

"We got one face mask and after that, we never got one again," he says. "We asked [Governor Andrew Cuomo], 'Hey, what's up with the face mask?' We're watching the news: They say these face masks only last four hours. It's like a lost cause. Right now I'm just walking around with a towel around my face."

While healthy inmates have limited access to protective gear, Campbell also says that those who get sick are not receiving the medical attention they need.

"I watched cancer patients with level four cancer catch it, and they [did] not release them from jail, talking about the charge that they might have — 'Oh, he has a robbery,' " he says. "Everybody's deemed innocent until proven guilty. But even if these people are guilty, who are you to say that it's alright for them to die, to not get proper treatment? Who are you to tell them to just sit in the cell and just figure it out? Who are you to just say it's alright for us to die? We have families."

"Being in jail is like literally being dead and watching everyone else live their life from a grave," he finishes.

Campbell was brash and outspoken on his podcast, and that hasn't changed: A few weeks ago he posted on Twitter about some of the conditions on Rikers.

"I'm not afraid of any consequences that might happen for me doing this interview or from any letters that I've written," he says. "I don't care. There's nothing you could do with me at this point. When they sit here and act like we're not human or we don't exist though, we don't have families or people that love us or our opinion doesn't count — that's when I get angry and I have to make these cries from the grave and let people know like, 'Yo, we're still alive. We don't have tombstones yet.' "

Campbell says that he feels compelled to use that platform he has through his podcast to speak up about the conditions he sees.

"I'm from East New York, Brooklyn; we never got a chance out there," he says. "And for me to be able to have a voice, to even speak to people that can't speak for themselves, I'll have to use my voice till they take it from me."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he documented the city's rise as rap's capital outpost for a decade while serving as music editor, staff culture writer and senior writer for the alt-weekly Creative Loafing. During his tenure there, he won awards for column writing, longform storytelling, editing and reporting on cultural issues ranging from gender to economic inequality. He also conceptualized and co-wrote "Straight Outta Stankonia"—an exhaustive look at Atlanta's gentrifying cultural landscape through the lens of OutKast—which was voted as one of the Atlanta Press Club's Top 10 Favorite Stories of the Past 50 Years.
Dustin DeSoto