Medical Malpractice At Rikers Island
Our NYC personal injury and medical malpractice attorneys who handle cases against the City of New York, for cases arising out of Rikers Island, know that the standard of care at Rikers is often sub par, because of systemic issues in the health care afforded to inmates. According to recent reports, there have been a total of 44 deaths at Rikers Island and other jails in New York City since January 2021, and just two Correctional Health Services staffers were disciplined for these deaths. While some deaths might be attributed to natural causes or pre-existing conditions, there are several instances where healthcare staff were accused of mishandling medical emergencies that led to an inmate's death. In one case, a detainee with asthma died after allegedly being denied a nebulizer treatment. In another instance, a detainee complaining of chest pain was allegedly left without medical attention in a holding cell and was found dead hours later. These incidents are just two examples of the many situations where healthcare staff errors are suspected of being the root cause of an inmate's death.
The Need for Increased Scrutiny and Accountability - Given the alarming number of deaths and the lack of disciplinary action towards healthcare staff, it's understandable that detainee advocates and human rights groups are calling for increased scrutiny and accountability. There is a growing concern that healthcare staff at Rikers Island and other NYC jails operate with impunity and are rarely held responsible even when it's clear that their actions (or inaction) led to an inmate's death. Without taking action to hold healthcare staff accountable, there can be no doubt that the death toll will continue to rise, further tarnishing Rikers Island's already damaged reputation.
Our NYC medical malpractice attorneys know that inmate complaints are often not taken seriously, and conditions which may not at first sight appear to need urgent care to avoid a fatality are often left unaddressed. One of the main problems with the health system at Rikers Island, is a compete lack of any continuity of care for the inmates. While the various detention centers have medical clinics, they are often not staffed by specialists or if they are the specialists are only there once every couple of weeks. Also, an inmate will typically see an internist at the clinic, for what is often a condition that requires further treatment, and while the internist renders treatment at the moment, there is no system in place for follow up care, so the inmate has to keep requesting medical visits, and each time sees a different doctor, who must go off of the notes of another provider. This system virtually guarantees that certain conditions, which if caught in time could be treated and addressed, will fall through the cracks.
Can an inmate or detainee sue for poor medical care at Rikers. In certain cases, yes, these cases are generally judged by the medical malpractice standards under New York law, or the wilfull indifference to a serious medical condition standard under 42 USC 1983. To be clear, not every gripe with the medical care, can be sued for, nor can every run of the mill complaint that medical treatment could have been better. Rather to succeed, it must be shown that the facility failed to provide care in accordance with applicable standards of medical care, and that as a result of that failure, the prisoner suffered some affirmative worsening of the condition or other serious complication.
There are also procedural burdens, that are especially difficult for inmates to meet. First, a notice of claim must be filed within 90 days of the malpractice or wrongful death, which for obvious reasons is difficult for inmates who have limited access to the resources necessary to prepare these forms properly, so it is important that if a situation develops in which an inmate has suffered an injury or illness from malpractice or a wrongful death, it is important that the inmate's family reach out to an attorney. Also, since the City jails are notorious for not documenting facts leading up to an inmate's death or illness, we recommend that the family put the complaints in writing as they are occurring and fax them to the warden's office, (also also keep a copy of the letter and proof it was faxed) which sometimes will spark some action. Also if it doesn't motivate the jail staff to take the prisoner's health condition seriously, then the letter serves as strong proof that the jail staff knew what was occurring and turned a blind eye.