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NYC Seeks to Reduce Jail Mental Health Help Just as Riker Inmate Harms Self

The Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island.
The Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island
Photo: Courtesy fo the Department of Correction

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As city officials sought to pare back routine treatment of mentally ill inmates, citing the coronavirus crisis, a Rikers Island detainee gouged himself during an apparent psychotic break, THE CITY has learned.

Rafael Ramos, 38, ripped out his left eye as he waited for medical care inside the Anna M. Kross center on Rikers Island shortly before noon on Saturday, internal Correction Department records show. Correction officers used pepper spray to stop him, the department’s initial report says.

About six hours later, the city’s Board of Correction publicly announced that Correctional Health Services, which oversees inmate medical care, was petitioning for a series of so-called variances to temporarily ease rules on how mentally ill inmates must be treated.

Dr. Patsy Yang, senior vice president for Correctional Health Services, sent a letter to the board on April 6. The missive was reviewed by city lawyers before it was posted online Saturday night.

Rikers Island
Rikers Island
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Yang wants flexibility in how often mental health professionals have to see certain inmates and hopes to soften deadlines for regular review of treatment plans.

For example, jail psychiatrists are by law required to see and evaluate stable adults on psychotropic medication in Rikers’ general population every two weeks. But a variance from 2005 has already allowed them to wait as long as 28 days.

Yang wants to boost that to eight weeks for non-seriously mentally ill adult inmates in Rikers’ general population. She also wants to limit contact between inmates allegeding sexual abuse and victim advocate counselors.

The requests all intend to cut down time detainees spend with medical staff as COVID-19 spreads through the city jail system, Yang said.

“While there are numerous essential health care services that must continue to be provided during these perilous times, just like in the community where non-essential health care is being postponed, CHS, too, seeks to reduce services where it can without harm to our patients,” Yang wrote to the board’s chair, Jeniffer Jones Austin.

‘Very Disturbing’

Dr. Robert Cohen, a board member and frequent critic of the Correction Department, expressed concern about possible changes.

“It’s very disturbing,” he said. “Are they able to provide basic services? I don’t know.”

The city has released hundreds of inmates from lockups in response to the coronavirus crisis. Meanwhile, the share of those in custody who are receiving ongoing mental health care in jail — designated “Brad H.” after a settlement in that name — has increased.

Dr. Robert Cohen
Board of Correction member Dr. Robert Cohen
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

From March 11 to April 11, the population with a “Brad H.” designation dropped 15%, while the non-Brad H. population decreased 30%, city data aggregated by the Vera Institute of Justice shows.

Yang’s letter noted that some medical staffers who usually look after inmates with mental illness are now being assigned to care for detainees with COVID-19 and some have become sick themselves.

All told, 86 CHS staffers have confirmed coronavirus cases and seven were in self quarantine as of Sunday, according to Jennine Ventura, a spokesperson for Correctional Health Services.

As of Sunday morning, at least 319 inmates and 573 DOC staff were dealing with COVID-19, according to the Board of Correction.

“The coronavirus is close to overwhelming the department,” said Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association. “They are clearly stretched real thin.”

‘A Big Test’

On Saturday, Ramos was being moved from the Manhattan Detention Complex to a unit on Rikers known as Hart’s Island medical clinic. It is unclear why he wasn’t initially placed there or in Bellevue Hospital, which has been hit with a deluge of COVID-19 patients.

He was moved after he kept covering his face and head with his pants and refused to follow basic instructions, according to a source.

Ramos was arrested on March 19 and charged with criminal mischief, menacing, harassment, and disorderly conduct outside a bodega in Bushwick, according to the NYPD. He was on parole at the time, and is also facing charges of attempted criminal sale of a controlled substance.

Russo called the Ramos case another example of how the department is struggling to look after inmates during the COVID-19 outbreak. He noted that approximately 2,500 officers were out sick last week.

“This is a big test for the Department of Correction and we are not doing well with it,” he said, noting officers weren’t initially given protective masks.

“Everyone’s consensus is the department has turned their backs on us,” he said. “We feel so rejected by the department.”

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