A new report finds the Department of Correction is vastly under-reporting serious injuries of inmates in city jails.
The report by the city’s Board of Correction, an oversight body that monitors jails, compared data from the medical staff that treats inmates to data from the Department of Correction in charge of guarding inmates. It found that between June of 2016 and September of 2018, medical staff reported 2,048 serious injuries while correction staff reported 403.
The Department of Correction also reported 438 injuries that occurred either when correction officers used force on an inmate or when an inmate was slashed or stabbed. But the Board of Correction argues those incidents only belong in the serious injury category if someone is seriously harmed. Even when these incidents are included, the discrepancy is still large.
“I don’t know that anybody is consciously not reporting stuff,” said Doctor Bobby Cohen, who sits on the Board of Correction. “But it’s important that it all be reported. And reported not just to have the numbers out there but to act on them, to figure out strategies that can prevent some of that and reduce the harm.”
In addition to the discrepancy in numbers between medical staff and correction staff, Cohen said that injured inmates are waiting on average, two hours for medical attention.
Medical care at city jails is provided by NYC Health + Hospitals’ Correctional Health Services. For them, a serious injury includes cuts requiring stitches, fractures, dislocations that require a clinical procedure, organ failure, headaches and dizziness caused by a concussion and the ingestion of a foreign object. The definition used by Correction staff is less specific and includes any injury that “creates a substantial risk of death or disfigurement," such as organ impairment and bone fractures.
Doctor Homer Venters is a Senior Health and Justice Fellow for Community Oriented Correctional Health Services. But until March of 2017, he was the city’s Chief Medical Officer at city jails. He blames the large discrepancy on the different methods used to track injuries. He says medical staff use sophisticated electronic records while correction staff use paper and pen.
“This is not just a benign set of gaps,” said Venters. “The way this paper-based system operates, it makes it very difficult to upgrade injuries.”
He gave the example of an inmate who at first appears to have minor scrapes and bruises but a day later an x-ray shows a bone fracture. For Correction staff to upgrade the injury, Venters said they would have to track down the original paper report and then get multiple people to sign off on it.
“What that means is a person who is injured is less likely for the severity or even the occurrence of their injury to be properly documented,” Venters said. “And that’s a consequence of this system that we’ve known [about] for many, many years.”
In a written statement, Peter Thorne, the lead spokesperson for the Department of Correction said, “We make sure that anyone injured in our custody has access to healthcare, and we are committed to ensuring that they get it in a timely and appropriate manner. This report’s findings will help DOC and CHS improve our information sharing so that we may better report, investigate and prevent serious injuries.”
Violence has plagued city jails for many years, and the report notes that despite a 32 percent decline in the inmate population between 2008 and 2017, overall injury reports have increased 101 percent. More recently though, serious injuries have been on the decline.
City councilman Keith Powers, Chair of the committee on criminal justice, said the Department of Correction needs to move into the 21st century and get rid of fax machines and paper records.
“I think that would give us the ability to get better data from them and get it easier and to have more confidence in what we are receiving,” Powers said.
Powers wants the medical and correction staff to report data together. The Department of Correction said that moving forward they will reconcile injury reports with health staff on a monthly basis but they did not say when that would begin.
Cindy Rodriguez is the urban policy reporter for New York Public Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @cynrod.