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Judge Faults Medical Care for Detainees in Latest Sign of Rikers Crisis

A state judge ruled on Tuesday that New York City’s Correction Department had failed to provide detainees with timely medical care. The ruling came the same day that city officials and a federal monitor produced a plan to potentially avoid a federal takeover of the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

The ruling, in State Supreme Court in the Bronx, was the latest legal finding to document the persistent crisis at Rikers, where mismanagement and absenteeism have left some jail housing areas unguarded while allowing brutal violence to flourish. The lives of those held in such units have been endangered by other detainees, with jail officers not only failing to offer protection but also neglecting to get detainees care for routine ailments.

“As today’s state court decision holding the Department of Correction in contempt of court makes clear, this administration’s inability to staff and manage its jails puts lives in danger every single day,” the Legal Aid Society, which represents incarcerated people, said in statement. “We have yet to see the swift, decisive action necessary.”

Latima Johnson, a Correction Department spokeswoman, said the agency was “committed to addressing these issues.”

“Ensuring people in custody get timely medical care is and always has been a priority for the Department of Correction,” Ms. Johnson said.

The ruling on Tuesday, which held the Correction Department in contempt, centered on thousands of jail detainees who had complained of delays in receiving medical, dental and mental health care — or of never receiving such care at all.

Detainees’ lawyers say the lack of prompt care for even minor ailments has led to complications and medical emergencies. In other instances, the lawyers say, surgeries have been delayed for months because of missed appointments.

The Crisis at Rikers Island

Amid the pandemic and a staffing emergency, New York City’s main jail complex has been embroiled in a continuing crisis.

  • Inside Rikers: Videos obtained by The Times reveal scenes of violence and offer vivid glimpses of the lawlessness that has taken hold.
  • Brutal Beatings: One Rikers detainee landed in a coma. Another was paralyzed. Both incidents were hidden from the public.
  • Decades of Dysfunction: For years, city officials have presided over shortcuts and blunders that have led to chaos at the jail complex.
  • Upcoming Deadline: The city’s correction commissioner has a few days left to present a plan to solve the situation at Rikers, or risk a federal takeover of the jail.

To receive medical care in jail, a detainee either must either ask to be escorted to a clinic by a correction officer or call a hotline run by Correctional Health Services, the city health care provider for people in custody. But court records show that the lack of officers has led more detainees to rely on the hotline, with their access sometimes obstructed by gang members or by officers denying medical attention as a form of punishment.

A spokesman for the union representing correction officers did not respond to a request for comment.

The state judge, Elizabeth A. Taylor, gave correction officials 30 days to improve access to care or face $100 in fines for each missed appointment from Dec. 11 through January.

Failure to comply, detainees’ lawyers said, could cost the city up to $190,900 given that more than 1,900 medical appointments were missed in that period because correction officers were unavailable to act as escorts. The lawyers said the money would go to detainees.

Lawyers for the detainees who filed the contempt motion said the rate of missed medical appointments had increased since January. In February, the lawyers said, there were more than 8,400 instances in which a detainee was not taken to a medical appointment. In March, the figure topped 12,700. At a recent City Council hearing, jail officials said many of the appointments were missed because detainees declined to be taken to them.

Carlina Rivera, a City Council member who leads the criminal justice committee, said “today’s revelation is another sign that this is a persistent problem rooted in mismanagement and dysfunction.”

The ruling came as correction officials continue to face immense pressure to address a decades-long crisis in the jails that has worsened over the past 18 months. On Tuesday, the commissioner, Louis A. Molina, submitted a detailed plan for addressing the problems plaguing Rikers to the federal judge overseeing a yearslong case stemming from the issues there.

The federal judge may soon decide whether to take control of the jail away from the city. The U.S. attorney in Manhattan raised the possibility of receivership in a letter in April, and a prosecutor from the office also noted the jails’ “deep-seated culture of violence” and poor management.

More than 1,100 of the 7,700 members of the uniform work force were out sick, according to a federal monitor’s report released on Tuesday. Four incarcerated people have died this year, with three of the deaths tied directly to insufficient staffing in jail housing areas, a report by the Board of Correction, an oversight panel, found.

A recent investigation by The New York Times also found that many officers who do come to work have been assigned jobs that include little contact with detainees. The New York City Correction Department has the highest staff-to-detainee ratio of any jail system in America, but hundreds of officers worked as secretaries and laundry room supervisors, while dozens of housing areas were left unguarded, The Times found.

On Tuesday, the monitor gave the federal judge an action plan developed with the city. Improvements will not be swift, given the level of mismanagement and physical decay at Rikers, the monitor, Steve J. Martin, wrote.

“The monitoring team does not believe there are anyready-made, quick or easy solutions that can ameliorate the polycentric problems facing the agency,” Mr. Martin wrote. “The current state of affairs in the jails presents an unprecedented challenge and, as such, there is no fail-safe path forward.”

Mr. Martin’s letter also praised Mr. Molina for making some progress, noting that he had reduced the number of staff members out sick from a high of 2,500 at the end of last year and had suspended almost 100 employees for abusing sick leave.

The action plan would change the Correction Department’s leadership structure and return officers not merely to work, but specifically to guarding detainees, Mr. Martin wrote. It would also create a staffing manager position to ensure that the work force is dependable and available.

In addition, the plan would create a position for an official who would classify incarcerated people according to their potential for violence and disperse gang members among housing units “to disrupt their concentration of power.”

Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement that the strategy would “aggressively untangle the dysfunction that has plagued the island and set it on a path of real and enduring reform.”

“There is much more difficult work to be done, and the city is committed to doing it,” he said.

The federal judge has scheduled a hearing in the case for May 24.

Jonah E. Bromwich contributed reporting.

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