Lawyers representing thousands of Rikers Island inmates who are being denied medical services asked a judge this week to hold the city's Department of Correction in contempt of court and fine it a half-million dollars for violating an order to provide better care.
Instead, State Supreme Court Judge Elizabeth Taylor directed the detainees’ Legal Aid Society attorneys to work with an attorney from the DOC to come up with a plan to improve inmates’ medical treatment.
“The bottom line is we need to get them access to their appointments,” Taylor said at the end of the virtual hearing.
Sixteen people incarcerated in city jails died last year, some due to medical issues. Every month, thousands of people who call to request medical care aren’t seen for an examination, according to DOC data.
To force an improvement, Legal Aid attorneys sued, and in early December, Taylor ordered the DOC to give detainees access to on-site clinics at least five days a week and within 24 hours of making a sick call. She also said there should be adequate security for detainees to move from where they’re held to the infirmary.
Citing data provided by the DOC, the Legal Aid Society argued Wednesday that the DOC has clearly violated that order. Last month alone, corrections officers didn’t bring people to 6,792 appointments. The DOC attributed the majority of those missed appointments to detainees refusing to go, but a former medical official at the jail and advocates have said such refusals are often mischaracterized.
In court on Wednesday, attorneys focused on another number: At least 1,909 instances in December and January when the DOC failed to provide a medical escort to bring an ill person to a medical appointment. The lawyers are seeking a $250 fine for each of those instances: $477,750. The judge asked DOC to find out how many of the people who missed appointments in December and January were ultimately seen by a medical professional, and when.
With an average of more than 1,000 corrections officers calling out sick each day during the pandemic, there routinely have not been enough officers to transport detainees to medical appointments and other services.
Legal Aid’s Kayla Simpson told the judge that the DOC had “plainly disobeyed” her order to improve medical care. “And that failure comes at a terrible cost — which is daily and preventable human suffering,” Simpson said.
Simpson said given that the DOC has some of the highest officer-detainee ratios of any jail system in the country, there should be no reason why medical escorts can’t be provided. She referenced allegations — like those made by city officials last year — that sick leave is abused by officers.
Chlarens Orsland, an attorney representing the DOC, said the pandemic has posed an undue strain on the department’s operations. “I don’t think the plaintiffs are really appreciating how battered the department has been over the last two years,” he said. “And frankly I’m proud of the work they’ve done, especially in the COVID area. They’ve done excellent work under enormously difficult circumstances.”
Orsland said addressing the lack of medical care is “among our highest priorities" and that the department "will do our best to get people to their appointments,” he said.
One possible fix lawyers discussed in court would be to allow detainees who pose little security concern to walk to their appointments without an officer escorting them. A Legal Aid lawyer also suggested that the DOC could stop using corrections officers in administrative roles.