EXCLUSIVE: Medical staff afraid to treat Rikers Island’s worst inmates; ‘It’s scary as hell’

By: 
REUVEN BLAU | NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

The city's most violent inmates have stirred such fear in medical staffers that clinicians are too afraid to treat them.

The city Correction Department’s specialized units for its worst behaving inmates are “potentially unsafe” for medical staff to conduct daily rounds, according to a top public hospital official and medical staffers.

Detainees in the enhanced supervision housing units — which began in 2015 and expanded last year — are allowed to walk around freely, jail insiders say. Now officials are demanding change.

“It’s scary as hell,” one Rikers Island clinician told the Daily News. “These inmates are not well, (they) constantly self-harm. They don’t get adequate mental health care. People ignore them.”

When inmates, especially those most in need of medical care, go untreated, the potential for violence increases.

Currently, every inmate in the eight specialized units on Rikers Island is supposed to be seen by medical staff once a day. But that doesn’t always happen, sources say. Instead, clinicians frequently claim they are too busy or that there was no officer available to escort volatile inmates.

So, officials with city Health + Hospitals want to replace those rounds with a system where inmates in the units can request medical care via a written questionnaire. Those who ask for a doctor will then be escorted to a clinic in another area by officers.

Patricia Yang, senior vice president for Correctional Health Services (CHS), made the unusual “variance request” in a March 10 letter to the Board of Correction, the department’s oversight body.

“While CHS is unable to perform medical rounds on patients who are not locked-in, it is also unfeasible, and potentially unsafe, for CHS staff to perform rounding while there are patients who are not locked in and moving about the enhanced supervision housing,” Yang wrote. “Rounding in this environment is not only clinically problematic, but also raises the risk that confidential patient-provider conversations will be inappropriately overheard.”

Clinicians called the proposal to limit rounds “horrible.”

They believe the safest way to conduct rounds is to have all the inmates in the unit locked into their cells during rounds.

But sometimes that’s not enough to keep clinicians safe.

“It’s like walking the halls of middle school except instead of the occasional bully you have numerous scary looking dudes, huge in size and stature, and usually angry as f---,” one clinician said. “If you are afraid of one bully in middle school imagine that on steroids times 100,000. They call us names, tell us they’re going to rape our relatives and try to throw (urine) on us when they are locked in while we do rounds.”

The city created the enhanced supervision housing units in large part as a substitute for solitary confinement for inmates who act out. Mayor de Blasio held a press conference inside the first unit created in March 2015. He cited the specially designed housing area as a major element of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte’s 14-point plan to reduce jail violence and the use of solitary confinement. Each of the units has an average daily population of 97 inmates, according to Health + Hospitals. By comparison, there were 15 inmates in the units last year. Inside, the violent inmates can be locked in their cells for 17 hours a day, but are let out for a multitude of classes and therapeutic programs. Some are forced to sit at restraint desks with their ankles shackled.

Another clinician, who does not work in the unit, noted that some officers assigned to the facility get hazard pay “where medical and mental health staff do not.”

The units were started, and expanded, as part of Ponte’s move to vastly reduce the number of inmates placed in solitary confinement as punishment.

Inmate advocates contend that the 23-hour-a-day confinement is a cruel and damaging practice.

The union representing correction officers says Health + Hospitals’ request shows there’s a need for more officers and that Ponte’s reforms are failing.

“It is ironic, however, that the medical professionals, who consistently point out the negative impact of punitive segregation, are now asking for inmates to be locked in their cells so that their staff can be safe,” said Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen.

The proposed changes must be approved by the Board of Correction. The monthly meeting set for Tuesday was canceled due to the snowstorm. No new date has been scheduled yet.

Reps for Health + Hospitals and the Correction Department declined to comment.