Judge Elizabeth A. Taylor has directed the New York Law Department to provide better access to medical care for people incarcerated in city prisons. In a court ruling filed on Monday, the Bronx judge ruled that city prisons must ensure detainees can go to on-site clinics at least five days a week and within 24 hours of a request to visit clinics. The judge also ordered that law enforcement agencies guarantee enough security guards to accompany them to and from medical visits.
The order comes in response to a judicial petition from a group of public defenders and attorneys looking for better terms for clients who routinely miss medical appointments as hundreds of prison guards continue to fall ill or skip their jobs.
“After that tragic year in which at least fourteen New Yorkers died in Rikers Island and other local prisons, we are grateful that the court acted swiftly to order the DOC to honor its obligation to care for the thousands of New Yorkers, who remain in prisons “with access to medical care,” said Veronica Vela, senior attorney for the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, one of the groups behind the judicial petition.
In a statement, a Justice Department spokesman said the agency “fully” agrees that “health care is a human right” and that it is doing its best to ensure that that right is fulfilled. “Although COVID and related personnel issues have presented us with challenges, we are determined to provide services to the people in our care to the best of our ability,” said the agency.
According to the latest publicly available data, between July and September this year, prison health authorities recorded more than 18,000 cases of detainees not being produced for scheduled services. The correctional facility claims that in many cases detainees “refuse” to attend doctor’s visits. Proponents counter, however, that the agency’s inability to get employees to work led to routine downtime.
“Every day we hear from people in need who need both emergency and routine medical care, and yet those calls for help regularly go unanswered,” said Brooke Menschel, director of civil rights and legal reform at Brooklyn Defender Services. “The consequences are devastation, suffering and death.”
Several deaths of inmates in city prisons were due to “natural causes”. Some families and lawyers believe that the prison system’s inability to provide rapid and adequate medical care in crowded environments contributed to these deaths.
In September, 34-year-old Stephan Khadu died in Lincoln Hospital after being relocated from the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating prison barge in the Bronx near Rikers Island. Khadu’s family believe his death was due to seizures he suffered during the summer of his incarceration. The family blames the conditions of his detention for his deteriorating health. Lezandre Khadu, Khadu’s mother, claims that even after he was hospitalized in July after having had a seizure, the prison authorities returned him to his cell rather than a sick bay, where he could be regularly monitored.
“Why would you all put him in the same cell again? There’s no air, there’s no ventilation, ”she said.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the case, which is currently the subject of litigation.
Isaabdul Karim, 42, died a few days before Khadu’s death after telling authorities that he was not feeling well. His lawyers say he previously contracted COVID-19 for ten days in a prison area, although the exact cause of his death is unknown.
In October, Victor Mercado, 64, died at Elmhurst Hospital after contracting COVID-19, according to his lawyer on Rikers Island.
“If the DOC is still unable to obey this ruling, it has no authority to arrest and the city and state must act immediately to release those in its custody to prevent further suffering,” said Vela.
A spokesman for Correctional Health Services, the agency responsible for providing medical care in city prisons, declined to comment on the story.