There are a couple of things I want to say about the 10 reform bills proposed in the NYC Council this week targeting the Department of Corrections.
First, as I mentioned in my rundown, even if these bills pass, they will be meaningless without rigorous enforcement and oversight by the council. Much of the problem here is not that the city lacks regulations over its jails — it’s that the Department of Corrections seems to follow its own rules and break theirs with impunity. For evidence of this, read pretty much any post I’ve written about Rikers Island.
My next point is more of a confession and a question than anything else. I understand why the council is leading its charge with bills aimed at transparency and reporting. They need this data in order to make well-informed decisions about how to change laws governing incarceration in New York City.
But in the end, I can’t help but think back to the final chapter of Nell Bernstein’s incredible book on ending juvenile incarceration, Burning Down The House.
In the chapter titled, “Against Reform: Beyond the Juvenile Prison,” Bernstein writes:
A great strength of our democracy, our reformist nature is also a critical weakness, blinding us to those occasions when a long-standing institution has a fundamental, conceptual flaw– the kind that demands not a wrench but a wrecking ball. If a reform proves inadequate, we simply try again. Another task force is assembled to supplant a now-defunct commission; new committees are assigned to exhume the wreckage of the old. Sometimes, these efforts pay off, and progress — our national religion — is attained. But there are also occasions when our reformist zeal leaves us patching the roof of a building that lacks a foundation.
Are the Mayor and the City Council approaching their criminal justice crisis with the “wrecking ball” it deserves, or the “wrench?” By maintaining juvenile incarceration, establishing the ESHU and keeping Corizon (among other things), is New York “patching the roof of a building that lacks a foundation?”
According to the NY Daily News, a group of medical staffers from New York City jail medical contractor Corizon Health Services filed a federal labor complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on April 11th for Corizon’s failure to protect them from inmate assaults.
From the Daily News:
The staffers charge that the nation’s largest jail health care provider repeatedly failed to protect them from dangerous inmates who were never properly restrained or labeled as serious threats, given their prior case histories.
The OSHA complaint cited an assault on a petite nurse who was brutally punched in the head by a 6-foot-tall, 160-pound inmate during a mental health assessment in a prison clinic on April 6.
“He hit me several times on the side of my head, arms and shoulder,” said the unidentified nurse, who suffered multiple bruises on her arm and shoulder.
In September of last year, Corizon was fined $71,000 by OSHA for failing to protect employees from violence, including “one willful violation for failing to develop and implement an effective workplace violence prevention program for its employees.”
Since then, city officials have scrambled to reform practices and policies concerning the conduct of medical staff and correction officers. But the changes appear to be slow-going: a recent report on the new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit found that many medical staff were sometimes too afraid to work with inmates when they were locked out of their cells. They also encountered difficulty finding appropriate space in the ESHU to conduct their sessions. Along with chronic understaffing, poor recruitment and limited training, factors like these can quickly conspire to obstruct the delivery of medical attention and care to inmates.
It is in this setting that the city asks medical staff to make critical and often life-or-death determinations, such as those pertaining to the placement of inmates in solitary confinement — despite the fact that such demands are, as one recent report found, in fundamental opposition to medical ethics.
The city is said to be considering ending its contract with Corizon, which wouldn’t fix everything but would be a great place to start making some real changes. I’m still wondering: How many more of these incidents will the NYCDOC tolerate before they cancel this contract?
The Associated Press got a sneak preview of a new study that found the medical ethics of healthcare workers on Rikers Island are seriously compromised — especially when they are involved in placing inmates in solitary confinement:
The two-year study at New York’s sprawling Rikers Island jail complex concluded with a bold recommendation to remove health workers entirely from the most contentious issue they face — whether to put an inmate in solitary. That’s because many doctors believe the confinement, which involves 23-hour stretches of isolation, could harm inmates.
Additionally, over 90% of health workers reported they treated an inmate for what was filed as a fight with another inmate, when in fact the inmate claimed to have been assaulted by guards. 16% had “heard of or seen” guards beating inmates at the health clinic. Many acknowledged concern over retaliation if they reported guard-on-inmate violence.
Unfortunately, the report’s central recommendation to remove healthcare workers from the placement process for solitary confinement directly contradicts the new rules adopted by the Board of Correction this past January. Continue reading
On January 26, 2015, Rudolph Richardson sued the city of New York, prison healthcare contractor Corizon Health Services and Dr. Landis Barnes for allegedly delaying and denying him emergency medical care following an incident in which his cell door slammed shut on his fingers.
According to the complaint filed in the District Court of the Southern District of New York, Richardson was hanging out in a common room at the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC) in June, 2014 when he asked a guard if he could return to his cell to use the bathroom. The guard approved, and another officer in charge of operating the mechanical door to his cell allowed Richardson to enter.
The toilet was positioned next to Richardson’s cell door, and while he was using the bathroom, the lawsuit states that the guard “suddenly and negligently closed the door to Mr. Richardson’s cell, causing the fingers of Mr. Richardson’s hand to get caught in said door.”
Richardson’s hand was crushed. One of his fingers was cut off. He went into shock and was bleeding profusely. The complaint states that he ran back to the common room for help. There was supposed to be a guard posted there, but the station was empty. After noticing he was severely injured and in distress, some of the inmates in the room tried to help Richardson find a guard. They eventually reached an officer at another station, who then tried to contact the clinic. Richardson allegedly waited for more than 10 minutes before someone showed up to escort him.
Once he got to the clinic, he was brought before a doctor working for Corizon Health Services. Dr. Landis Barnes allegedly took a quick look at Richardson’s hand and told him the finger could not be saved. According to the complaint, Dr. Barnes then instructed Richardson to throw his detached finger in the garbage. Continue reading
Florida’s newly-minted corrections chief Julie Jones has announced that her department will rebid $1.4 billion worth of private contracts to provide healthcare to approximately 100,000 inmates across the state.
The majority of those contracts are held by the nation’s largest and most controversial prison medical provider, Corizon Health Services. Another private provider, Wexford Health Sources, will have its contracts put up for bidding as well. Under those agreements, Florida was to pay Corizon $229 million per year until June, 2018 and Wexford $48 million per year until December, 2017.
Corizon and Wexford were fined $22,500 by the state at the end of January for providing ‘deficient care’ to its prisoners. Shortly thereafter, Jones threatened to cut ties with both contractors unless they negotiated a new deal “with an eye to enhancing prescription drug delivery, mental health services and nursing care [including] requiring more registered nurses to be on hand rather than less-skilled staffers.” Apparently those demands could not be met.
The Florida Department of Correction notes that rebidding the contracts will cause healthcare spending in prisons to increase. Considering these companies have been known to engage in cruel profit-maximizing strategies (such as hiring and underpaying too-few and often underqualified staff or changing / denying inmates’ prescriptions) this was somewhat inevitable without further-compromising inmate healthcare.
Some of these problems were baked right into the contracts themselves; for instance, Corizon agreed to the ridiculous term that its services would cost the state “7% less [to provide care] than what it cost in 2010,” despite a growing prison population and rapidly increasing healthcare costs. As a result, incarcerated people in Florida and their families and loved ones have greatly suffered: Continue reading
With the filing of two new lawsuits in New Mexico this week, Dr. Mark E. Walden stands accused of sexually assaulting scores of prisoners while working for inmate healthcare contractor Corizon Health Services inside two different GEO Group for-profit prisons in the state.
Filed on February 13th and 16th, the lawsuits are the sixth and seventh to be brought against Dr. Walden in the past three years, and raise the total number of Walden’s alleged victims to around 50.
Walden is accused of fondling prisoners’ genitals and conducting superfluous, aggressive rectal exams for ailments like tooth aches and toe fungus. Walden has denied any and all wrongdoing, and Corizon and GEO Group have so far refused to speak with the press on these matters.
The two most recent lawsuits represent a total of seven inmates, and name Walden, Corizon, GEO Group and New Mexico prison and healthcare officials as defendants. Plaintiffs have filed under their initials to avoid harassment and retaliation.
According to one lawsuit, Walden used a screen to keep other staff from looking in and seeing what he was doing. A plaintiff known only as “S.W.” claims he was digitally penetrated by Walden on three separate occasions. When S.W. asked why Walden was conducting these exams, the doctor responded that he was “milking his prostate” and made other nonsensical medical claims. Continue reading
On February 11th, the Associated Press reported that the mother of deceased Rikers Island inmate Quannell Offley was suing New York City for her son’s wrongful death. The lawsuit is one of many facing the city over Rikers Island and comes after months of reports detailing abuse and neglect by the city’s prison staff.
According to the lawsuit, Offley told prison guards on multiple occasions that he wanted to kill himself after being placed in solitary confinement. His final threat was met by a guard who said, “If you have the balls, go ahead and do it.” He was later found hanging from a bed sheet attached to an air vent in his cell.
Offley’s suicide came just a few weeks after Bradley Ballard, a schizophrenic and diabetic prisoner, also died in a solitary unit at Rikers. Ballard was locked in isolation for 7 days straight without water, exercise, shower, therapy or medication, and was eventually found unconscious on the floor, covered in feces and urine with a rubber band tied tightly around his badly-infected penis. When clinical staff finally arrived, just moments before Ballard’s death, the doctor refused to even touch him or enter his cell. In what would be the last of several severe violations of Ballard’s civil rights, the doctor instructed inmate workers to wrap his filthy, dying body in a bed sheet and remove him.
According to the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations, “A qualified medical practitioner […] is required to visit the SHU once in every 24-hour period to examine into the state of health of the inmates confined in such unit.” But security camera footage of the SHU where Ballard was confined showed medical staff skipping rounds or speaking with prisoners for little more than a minute at a time. Having been in isolation around the same time as Ballard at Rikers, Offley appears to have experienced similar neglect by medical staff in the unit. Continue reading