Concerns Over New Health Care Rules For Inmates

Ex-convict José Lugo complained of receiving poor medical treatment at the Fishkill Correctional Facility (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Ex-convict José Lugo complained of receiving poor medical treatment at the Fishkill Correctional Facility (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

At prisons in New York City, inmates fail to receive adequate medical attention. After numerous complaints of medical malpractice and the death of prisoners due to the alleged inaction of Department of Correction (DOC) prison guards, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration ordered an extensive review to be conducted by an interagency team in the fall of 2014.

As a result, and as part of the criminal justice system reform ordered by the mayor, it was established that, starting next year, the Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) will provide all medical services to the city’s prisons. By returning the management of health services to the HCC, all contracts with Corizon and Damian Family Care Centers will be cancelled after they expire on Dec. 31, 2015, and August 2016, respectively.

The decision will turn the HHC into the only agency responsible for supplying healthcare to the nearly 70,000 people who go through the corrections system every year, a fact that has already sparked controversy.

The Doctors Council, affiliated with the SEIU union, told El Diario that they are concerned about a “lack of transparency” in the city’s plans.

The group is composed of thousands of doctors from the city’s metro area and includes HHC and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) professionals and personnel working at Rikers Island and the Vernon C. Bain Maritime Facility. The Council said that they have also spoken to the HHC about language access issues faced by the inmates, “especially when it comes to medication intake, an aspect that the penal system seems to overlook.”

Still, the DOHMH and the HHC pointed out that “for Latino inmates who don’t speak English, prison health services currently offer in-person or over-the-phone translation in which an interpreter facilitates the communication between the health professional and the patient.”

The city’s agencies said that they have started to work with their Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services to continue eradicating language barriers for patients. However, translation and interpretation services are not the only concern for health professionals.

“We are deeply worried about the lack of progress in the HHC transition (…) We do not have clear answers,” said Dr. Frank Proscia, president of the Doctors Council, last week at a Board of Corrections meeting.

 Proscia brought up the lack of personnel and exhausting working hours that could be in violation of union and labor policies. In 2014, mandatory overtime at Rikers surpassed 3,000 hours, according to recent statistics from the Doctors Council. That same year, one psychiatrist worked 300 overtime hours, equivalent to 37 shifts. In 2015, working conditions did not improve.

“This year, a doctor was ordered to work 24 hours or more nine times,” said Proscia. “This is an absolutely unsustainable situation. It is not safe for the personnel or for the inmates.”

The Council warned that failing to renew contracts with Corizon and Damian is just the beginning. “We know that Correctional Dental Associates, subcontracted for dental services, is also plagued with safety issues similar to Corizon’s,” said Proscia.

For his part, Mayor de Blasio said that having the DOHMH and the HHC directly manage all health services instead of external providers will further “our goal of improving the quality and continuity of healthcare for every inmate in city custody.”


Death at Rikers

One of the most controversial cases of deaths inside a New York prison is that of Andy Henríquez. The 19-year-old Dominican died in April 2013 from a tear of the aorta, the main artery carrying blood out of the heart.

In her lawsuit, Henríquez’s mother Sandra de la Cruz claims that the teen complained of chest pains for several days and that he begged for help while his fellow inmates screamed and kicked their cell doors to get the attention of the guards, who did not respond.

 The lawsuit against Corizon and DOC officers claims that a doctor prescribed a hand cream to Henríquez but wrote the name of the wrong medication on the prescription. Hours later, the teenager was found dead on the floor of his cell.

“Andy’s case demonstrates that the city’s jails are ensuring a double punishment for inmates: Confinement when they cannot post bond and appalling medical care that may lead to death,” said Travis Morales, an activist with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. Henríquez’s case is one in more than two dozen legal malpractice complaints against Corizon submitted in court since 2012.


Hell at Fishkill

Poor medical services and the inaction of correctional guards at the city’s jails may also be frequent at state prisons. José Lugo, a 40-year-old Latino, talked about the hell he went through at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium security prison located 60 miles from New York City. The ex-convict underwent surgery of his meniscus in April, a month before his scheduled release after completing a 23-year sentence.

“I spent three days with a dirty, blood-soaked bandage,” he said, sitting in the living room of his Bronx apartment. “The guard did nothing to help me. I had to clean it myself and put the dirty bandage back on, even though I asked them to change it.”

Showing his scarred knee, Lugo said that the lack of supervision after the surgery caused the wound to become severely infected.

“My leg was swollen and it looked black and purple. It was traumatizing to see myself in this condition,” said Lugo. “Sometimes, I wanted to scream from the pain, but there is no room in Fishkill for the weak. I didn’t want to complain and then have the guards take revenge by delaying my release.”

Lugo said that he was prescribed antibiotics and pain medication every four hours, but that the nurses would only provide the drugs once or twice a day.

“Even though I made a mistake that hurt my family and my community, I still have rights,” he said. “I paid my debt with my confinement. My sentence did not imply that I would be denied medical attention.”

Cancer survivor Eliezer Rodríguez, a 38-year-old Dominican, would go through a similar nightmare at Fishkill.

“The officers don’t want to hear complaints. They see us as animals behind bars,” said the father of one. “In prison, if you don’t want to be punished, you’d better not fight for your rights.”

Rodríguez said that he went to the clinic for a physical exam in 2004 due to an abnormal lump in his calf. After taking X-rays, the doctors ruled out a serious illness and took him to a hospital in Mount Vernon for minor surgery. A biopsy revealed a month later that it was cancer, and the ex-convict received chemotherapy for three months.

“Soup was the only thing my stomach could hold, but no one cared to change my diet,” he said. “I could not nourish myself. I thought I’d die.”

Even though the affected area was reconstructed with healthy muscle and bone, the cancer returned, leading to an amputation of Rodríguez’s leg at the Presbyterian Hospital after his released in 2006.

“Had I had better care in prison, I might have been able to save my leg,” lamented Rodríguez.

The latest case of abuse reported in Fishkill was Samuel Harrell’s, an African-American bipolar patient who was allegedly beaten to death by prison guards in April.

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