Judge orders better access to medical care at Rikers Island

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Judge Elizabeth A. Taylor ordered the New York City Department of Corrections to give those incarcerated in city jails better access to medical care. In a court ruling filed Monday, the Bronx judge ruled that city jails must ensure inmates can attend on-site clinics at least five days a week and within 24 hours of a visitation request. The judge also demanded that prison authorities secure enough security personnel to guide them to and from medical visits.

The order follows a legal petition from a group of public defenders and lawyers seeking better terms for clients who have routinely missed medical appointments as hundreds of prison guards continue to be sick or not working.

“After this tragic year, when at least fourteen New Yorkers died at Rikers Island and other local jails, we are grateful to the Court for moving quickly to order the DOC to fulfill its obligation to provide the thousands of New Yorkers who remain in prisons with access to medical care,” said Veronica Vela, attorney-in-charge of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, one of the groups behind the court application.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the corrections department said the agency “strongly agrees” that “health care is a human right” and is doing its best to ensure that right is upheld. “While COVID and related staffing issues have challenged us, we are committed to providing services to those in our care to the best of our abilities,” the agency said.

According to the latest publicly available data, between July and September this year, prison health authorities recorded more than 18,000 cases in which inmates were not produced for scheduled services. The Correction Department complaints that in many cases, detainees “refuse” to attend medical visits. But supporters counter that the agency’s inability to get staff to work has caused routine service outages.

“Every day we hear of people in distress, in need of urgent and routine medical care, yet these cries for help routinely go unanswered,” said Brooke Menschel, Director of Civil Rights and law reform at Brooklyn Defender Services. “The results are devastation, suffering and death.”

Several deaths of inmates in the city’s prisons are due to “natural causes”. Some families and advocates believe the prison system’s inability to provide timely and adequate medical care in crowded environments contributed to these deaths.

In September, 24-year-old Stephan Khadu died at Lincoln Hospital after being transferred from the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating prison barge in the Bronx near Rikers Island. Khadu’s family believe his death was due to seizures he began to suffer from while incarcerated over the summer. The family blames the conditions of detention for his deteriorating health. Lezandre Khadu, Khadu’s mother, says that even after he was hospitalized after having convulsions in July, prison authorities sent him back to his cell, rather than an infirmary where he could be regularly monitored.

“Why are you putting him back in that same cell?” There is no air, there is no ventilation,” she said.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment on the case, which is currently the subject of a trial.

A few days before Khadu’s death, Isaabdul Karim, 42, died after telling authorities he was not feeling well. His lawyers say he had previously contracted COVID-19 while waiting in a prison admissions area for ten days, although his exact cause of death is unknown.
In October, 64-year-old Victor Mercado died at Elmhurst Hospital after contracting COVID-19 on Rikers Island, according to his lawyer.

“If the DOC is still unable to comply with this order, it does not have the authority to detain, and the city and state must act immediately to release those in its custody to avoid new suffering,” Vela said.

A spokesperson for Correctional Health Services, the agency responsible for medical care in city jails, declined to comment for the story.

This article has been corrected to accurately reflect Mr. Khadu’s age at the time of his death. He was 24, not 34 as originally stated.

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