You Call This A Medical Emergency? Death and Neglect at Rikers Island Women’s Jail

Erika Eichelberger, You Call This a Medical Emergency? Death and Neglect at Rikers Island Women’s Jail. The Intercept, 29 May 2015.  On the second day Jackie Caquias was “at the Rose M. Singer Center, [Rikers Island’s] only women’s facility, the medical clinic ran lab tests that showed Jackie’s liver was severely stressed. Blood work two weeks later showed the same. Yet the doctors at Rikers didn’t send Jackie to a gastroenterologist for a liver exam. Instead, they prescribed her Tylenol 3 and iron, both dangerous for people with liver problems. The Tylenol 3 was discontinued after a week, but even after medical staff ordered the iron be stopped, the pharmacy continued dispensing it. Less than a month after Jackie arrived at Rose M. Singer, her system began to fail. She grew disoriented and delusional, and began vomiting so severely that blood and bodily tissue came up — all signs of acute liver failure. On June 25, 2014, after spending weeks in Elmhurst Hospital comatose and hooked up to machines, Jackie died.”

Jackie’s death appears to fit a pattern; a series of health care-related deaths alongside the never-ending reports of brutality in the Rikers men’s jails have dominated headlines in recent months. Last year, the AP reported that poor medical care at Rikers had helped precipitate at least 15 inmate deaths over the past five years….

But “women prisoners often get overlooked,” says Amy Fettig, a senior counsel at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. The island’s women’s jail, known as Rosie, is home to about 600 of the 11,000 inmates at Rikers. “In some facilities you might not see beat-ups, but you’ll see the violence of not receiving appropriate health care,” she says. Medical records, inmate complaint data, and interviews with current and former inmates bear this out….

After an inmate death in 2010, the New York State Commission of Correction ordered Corizon, which is the largest private correctional health care provider in the country, to evaluate why patients’ medications were often discontinued after admission. And in 2011, after another death, the commission demanded the company fix problems with its dispensation of psychotropic meds and review its pharmacists’ professional qualifications.

Corizon says its employees “work hard to provide our patients with appropriate care — including providing all treatment and medication that is clinically indicated.” And yet the company — which services 345,000 inmates in 531 jails, prisons and detention facilities around the country — has built itself a reputation for cutting costsand putting patients’ lives at risk. Corizon was reportedly sued 660 times for malpractice between 2008 and 2013, and has been implicated in class action lawsuits filed by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The company says its “patient population is highly litigious,” and that the “existence of a suit is not necessarily indicative of quality of care or any wrongdoing.”…

The company emphasizes: “We consider it our mission to care for our patients as we would our own family.” But at a recent city council hearing, Corizon’s chief medical officer, Dr. Calvin Johnson, was at a loss when a council member asked what specific reforms the company had recommended to improve care at Rikers in the wake of the recent string of deaths. Despite rephrasing the question six times, the council member never got a direct answer….

Eighty-four percent of women incarcerated nationwide are locked up for a nonviolent crimes. Most are poor. A disproportionate number are black or Hispanic….

New York City’s Department of Corrections has recently come under intense scrutiny over correction officers’ brutality toward inmates, but what the Justice Department has called a “deep-seated culture of violence” is also undercutting inmate health care. A March 2015 study by DOHMH [New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] officials found that medical staff throughout the New York City jail system often made decisions based on security priorities. Patients interviewed said they saw no separation between medical and correctional staff. “There is not DOC and medical,” Conteh agrees. “It’s medical-DOC.”

Legal Aid — which does not investigate each grievance — has received numerous inmate complaints of medical staff at Rikers dismissing patient complaints as malingering….

On September 9, 1971, a thousand prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rioted and seized control of the prison in what became the bloodiest prison uprising in U.S. history. The riot stemmed from prisoners’ demands for decent living conditions, an end to brutality and better medical care. The Attica rebellion helped prompt a slew of prisoner lawsuits that culminated in a landmark 1976 United States Supreme Court ruling. Because inmates are not able to seek out medical care themselves, the court said, the failure to provide them with proper health care constitutes a violation of the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Most inmates at Rikers are awaiting trial. Many others are in on short stays for minor crimes. That someone jailed so briefly would suffer unconstitutional medical care is all the more jarring….

“This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the Puffin Foundation.”