Calling for more oversight of healthcare delivery at local jails, a group of advocates rallied on the steps of City Hall Tuesday, slamming the for-profit correctional healthcare provider Corizon Health, which had been linked to several recent deaths at Rikers Island.
The Jails Action Coalition (JAC) has been working to improve conditions inside New York City jails for a number of years, but a recent series of high-profile deaths in which Corizon – the nation’s largest provider of correctional healthcare – has been found responsible for medical neglect and homicide, has prompted new scrutiny from elected officials.
At Rikers Island, like other jails and prisons, people are given only the most cursory evaluation of health and mental health needs, said Evie Litwok, a member of JAC.
A recent state investigation into the death of Bradley Ballard, who died after being left in an isolation cell at Rikers Island without water or diabetes medication for seven days, cited Corizon for 47 different violations of state law relating to his care. Even though doctors and correctional officers essentially watched him die in front them, no one ever came to his aid and to date no one has been held accountable for his death, coalition members said Tuesday.
“Just because you are locked up doesn’t mean you don’t deserve access to quality healthcare,” Council Member Corey Johnson, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Health said Tuesday. Johnson referenced 15 preventable deaths at Rikers Island during the past few years alone that have been connected to Corizon.
The company has been sued 660 times in the last five years for malpractice. The State of Florida is considering voiding Corizon’s $1.2 billion contract with the state unless the firm improves the delivery of care. Washington D.C. recently walked back its $66 million three-year contract. Florida has also accused Corizon of lying to state officials and withholding information about deaths in custody. A recent lawsuit alleges that the company did the same at Rikers Island, and lied to families of people who died there about cause of death. Corizon is being sued in Maine, NYC Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte’s old stomping grounds, for racial discrimination.
Last year, the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene gave Corizon bad marks on its evaluation, and City Council is reviewing the contract, which is up at the end of the year.
“If a downgrade means Corizon is incapable of providing adequate care, we need to go out and find another provider because people’s lives are at stake,” said Council Member Rosie Mendez. “People who are incarcerated still have some civil rights; no one at Rikers Island was given a death sentence, but some got that anyway.”
Dakem Roberts, a JAC member, said Tuesday that when he was incarcerated at Rikers Island as a teenager, he was refused a simple request for medication. He wondered Tuesday if the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which allows for enslavement of anyone convicted of a crime, is what makes correctional healthcare providers and correction officers feel as if they can provide substandard care.
The Tennessee-based Corizon has a $126 million dollar contract with New York City to provide healthcare in the jails that is overseen by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In the jails, the DOHMH is a junior partner to the Department of Correction, which provides security.
This set-up, which includes Corizon subcontracting out some of the work, has led to a merry-go-round of unaccountability, according to elected officials, who said Tuesday that it’s hard to tell who is most responsible for the obvious failures in healthcare provision: The Department of Health, the Department of Correction or Corizon.
On Tuesday Johnson introduced a reporting bill that he said will bring much-needed transparency to healthcare provisions in the jail. At a hearing following the rally, he described Rikers Island as “a mess.”