A city correction officer called public defender Alejandra Lopez on Friday to urge her to do everything possible to get her client with COVID-19 out of a jail hospital unit.
Walter Ance, 63, died about 24 hours later in Bellevue Hospital, becoming the second city inmate to succumb to the virus.
“The officer wished that [Ance] could go home,” recalled Lopez, a Legal Aid Society attorney. “He asked me to keep helping him to hopefully get him released. He thought no one should be in a hospital jail like that.”
Ance was in jail for close to 13 months after he was arrested and charged with stabbing his estranged wife in the chest, according to court records.
Lopez had desperately been trying to get him released since late last month when coronavirus began to spread through the city jail system, infecting 319 inmates and 573 staff members as of Monday.
She argued he was at serious risk if he contracted the virus due to his age, diabetes, and prostate issues.
He could have lived with a relative in Connecticut or be quarantined in a hotel if released, according to a discharge planning report.
But several officials at the Queens District Attorney’s Office refused to give the go ahead to release Ance, who was initially held in the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, according to Lopez.
At Rikers, Ance was in a housing unit with multiple other men sleeping near each other. He worried that he’d die behind bars, according to his niece.
“He said it was impossible to social distance there,” his niece, Lourdes Ance, 43, recalled. “He was really scared.”
She remembered fondly how he loved to watch soccer and cook dishes from his native Argentina.
“Asado was his favorite,” she said, referring to the barbecue style of cooking.
He lived in Ozone Park, Queens, and worked as a private driver, according to his family.
His niece last spoke to him about two weeks ago when he complained about a bad cough and body aches.
He was moved to Bellevue Hospital on March 27 and put on a ventilator at some point afterward, medical records show. His family was contacted on Friday night by a doctor who explained he was unlikely to survive.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, the city’s five district attorneys have agreed to free hundreds of low-level offenders. But they have balked at letting out anyone facing serious charges.
Ance’s top charge was attempted murder in the second degree, according to the Queens District Attorney’s Office.
Inmate advocates and some criminal justice experts contend that some people facing more serious charges should be released from jail before they contract the virus.
“Our draconian approach toward violent crime rests on viewing certain people, and certain groups of people, as not fully human. This has always been a pressing concern in criminal justice reform; during the pandemic, it is a matter of life and death,” John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham University, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
Dr. Ross MacDonald, the jail system’s top doctor, last month urged government officials to free as many vulnerable inmates as possible.
“A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient,” he tweeted. “What will you be doing? What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”
A recent New Yorker story quoted medical experts and advocates explaining how people in jails are more susceptible during a health crisis due to housing units with multiple detainees in close sleeping areas.
Michael Tyson, 53, became the first coronavirus-positive city jail inmate to die in Bellevue Hospital on April 4. He was being held after missing meetings with his parole officer.
As for Ance, his lawyer says he was waiting patiently to make his case in court, a process that was repeatedly delayed.
“It really saddens me to know that he passed away awaiting justice,” Lopez said. “It’s very tragic.”
This story was originally published on April 12, 2020 by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. To sign up for the Gay City News email newsletter, visit gaycitynews.com/newsletter.