The city agency in charge of medical care for incarcerated people routinely cancels sick-call appointments when correction officers fail to bring a patient to jail clinics on three consecutive days, according to a lawsuit filed by the city’s largest public defender organization.
The Legal Aid Society also contends that Correctional Health Services — a division of NYC Health + Hospitals — refuses to disclose more about the official missed-appointments policy and its impact on people who are locked up, said the suit filed Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court.
The Board of Correction, the city jails’ oversight body, has repeatedly cited missed medical visits as a key factor in the 26 deaths in custody since Commissioner Louis Molina took over the Department of Correction in January 2022.
“The past couple of years have shown that people in custody suffer terrible consequences, including death, when DOC fails to get them to medical appointments,” said Robert Quackenbush, staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society.
The lawsuit is asking Correctional Health Services (CHS) to disclose how often it cancels medical appointments due to the Department of Correction not delivering a detainee, he added.
“That should not be difficult, and it should not require a lawsuit to find out,” Quackenbush said. “CHS should have no interest in covering up for DOC’s incompetence.”
Jeanette Merrill, a CHS spokesperson, defended how the agency handles detainee sick calls.
She said a sick call triage supervisor reviews all so-called open orders and if there is any outstanding “clinical concern” with closing out the appointment, it is routed to a telehealth doctor or physician’s assistant for review, citing the agency’s policy.
Merrill and other CHS officials declined to detail to THE CITY how many times cases were closed out after three missed appointments — or the number of incidents referred to a telehealth medical staffer.
CHS does share the data of missed medical appointments with the Board of Correction.
But the health agency has never called for any reforms despite thousands of missed appointments each year — or ever publicly decried the ongoing problem. CHS has also never publicly detailed how it internally handles when incarcerated people miss multiple appointments.
Old Problems, New Leadership
The Department of Correction has long struggled to escort incarcerated people 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 correction officer available for — or interested in — escorting detainees to the clinics, Correctional Health Services records posted online by the Board of Correction show.
Molina has argued that most of the missed visits are because detainees refused to go.
“They might be refusing because the experience of waiting for medical services is unpleasant,” he told amNewYork in January. “They might refuse because it’s in conflict with a court date. They might refuse because their loved one is visiting that day. They might refuse because there is vocational training that they’re taking and they value that more than going to, you know, get their eyes checked for whatever reason to get glasses.”
The lawsuit over missed medical visits behind bars comes as a federal judge overseeing the department has agreed to hear arguments in favor of a third-party receiver takeover.
Molina and his staff contend that they have vastly improved services since he was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams last year.
“I think it’s fair to say that in the past, this [medical appointments] was not our strength,” Paul Shechtman, the DOC’s general counsel, testified before the City Council in December 2022.
“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,” he added, 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.”
Schectman, who previously served as the defense lawyer for former correction union president Norman Seabrook, resigned last Friday, City & State reported. He had denied he was leaving the department when THE CITY reached out to him earlier this summer.
Still, the problem of missed medical visits persists despite Molina and his team making it easier for detainees to walk themselves to appointments.
According to CHS figures cited by City Comptroller Brad Lander, the monthly number of missed medical visits has spiked by 21%, from 9,259 in August 2022 to 11,176 in June 2023, outpacing growth in the jail population.
The issue is a matter of ongoing litigation with The Legal Aid Society. In December 2022, the public defender organization argued in court that the DOC 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.
Bronx Supreme Court Judge Elizabeth Taylor denied that request but the class action lawsuit filed on behalf of four detainees in October 2021 remains active.
Some missed clinic visits can have deadly results. All told, 19 detainees died last year, the highest death rate in 25 years. Eight men have passed away in custody so far this year.
In one May 2022 death, Dashawn Carter had missed 92 medical appointments during his three stints in jail dating back to 2018, THE CITY reported last year.
Carter, a 25-year-old Staten Island native, was discovered 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.
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.