The city Department of Correction should pay a $3 million fine and explain to a judge how many people it can realistically provide medical care to and take no more than that, New York’s largest public defender group argued in a court filing Monday.
The legal complaint by The Legal Aid Society and others in Bronx Supreme Court comes as the jail population has steadily increased over the past year and is expected to hit 7,000 next year, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina testified before the City Council last week.
Incarcerated people in city jails missed more than 12,000 medical visits from February through October because of a lack of correction officer escorts or space in the medical clinics, according to the department.
As a result, the Adams administration should be held in contempt for failing to comply with a summer court order requiring the city to provide basic medical care, the suit contends. That would include a $250 fine for each missed medical visit in that timeframe, totaling $3 million.
The fines would be awarded to detainees who missed medical visits.
Lawyers for detainees are also asking Judge Elizabeth Taylor, who is overseeing the case, to grant a so-called “evidentiary hearing” to figure out the maximum number of incarcerated people the DOC can safely provide with access to medical care.
That number would then be used to put a cap on the number of people that could be sent to Rikers Island and other city jails.
“People in the jails continue to suffer countless harms from delay and outright denial of access to injury care, chronic care, and critical medications, contributing to the highest death rate in DOC facilities in over 25 years,” says a statement from The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and Milbank LLP.
The three groups brought the initial class action lawsuit filed on behalf of four detainees in October 2021.
The city’s beleaguered correction department has long struggled to ensure incarcerated people are brought to medical clinics in jails, or to nearby hospitals in more severe cases.
The medical appointments are often canceled because of facility lockdowns or the lack of a guard available for — or interested in — escorting detainees to the clinics, Correctional Health Services records posted online by the Board of Correction show.
In August, Taylor ordered the city to pay roughly $200,000 in fines to incarcerated people who were denied access to medical treatment as well as attorney fees.
The city appealed the order in September — and hasn’t paid a penny. That decision is still pending.
Jail officials contend that they’ve vastly improved over the past year under Molina’s leadership.
“I think it’s fair to say that in the past, this was not our strength,” Paul Shechtman, the DOC’s general counsel, testified before Council last week.
“I can tell you now that the current statistics are that we escort people there who need to go there more than 95% of the time,” Shechtman said, referring to jail clinics. “We’re not perfect yet. But it is a much better story than it was a year ago, and will continue to get better.”
Earlier this year, THE CITY reported that there were 11,789 missed medical appointments in April, and another 10,968 in May.
Public defenders contend the problem persists and that any apparent progress is due to the department’s shift, starting in May, in how it reports the figures.
The department briefly switched to reporting the number of people who have missed medical appointments, rather than the number of missed medical appointments. Now the DOC blames the small size of the clinics, and security concerns about different gang members in the same location, for the missed visits.
The DOC is “doing everything it can” to make sure all incarcerated people are brought to their medical appointments, said Law Department spokesperson Nicholas Paolucci, who said the majority of missed appointments are due to people declining to go.
“Appointments missed due to lack of a DOC escort represents only a small part of non-production,” he said. “In the latter half of this year, lack of an escort officer accounted for less than half a percent (0.4%) of all scheduled appointments.”
Still, in some cases, the unmet appointments can have fatal consequences. This year, 19 incarcerated people have died, the highest death rate in 25 years.
That includes Dashawn Carter, 25, who missed 92 medical appointments during his three stints in jail dating back to 2018, THE CITY reported in July.
The Staten Island native was found hanging from a bedsheet attached to a window in the corner of a housing unit in the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers in an apparent suicide on May 7.
In April 2020, he told THE CITY it was hard to get his “psych meds” at the jail — where he was being held on robbery charges — in part because his housing area was on lockdown as the pandemic started.
Carter’s case was not unique.
A review by the city’s Board of Correction found that missed medical appointments were a common theme in four drug-related deaths and six suicides in city jails in 2021. All 10 people missed at least one appointment.
“Almost everyone who died in custody missed numerous medical and mental health care appointments,” said the contempt plea filed Monday, referring to this year’s deaths.