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Locked Up

Rikers Guard Sick-Out Just Put the Department of Correction in Contempt of Court

Guards are AWOL so people locked up aren't getting medical care. A judge says that's unacceptable.

An askew aireal view of Rikers Island

Rikers Island (Martin Lewison / Flickr)

A state judge found the New York City Department of Correction in contempt of court today after it admitted that it’s not providing people locked up on Rikers Island with adequate medical care.

The Legal Aid Society of New York, Brooklyn Defender Services, and the Milbank law firm filed suit last year in the Bronx on behalf of people held in city custody without consistent access to medical care, in violation of state law and city law.

The Department of Correction was in no position to deny the claim. Though Rikers has one of the highest ratio of staff to incarcerated people of any jail system in the country, guards, protected by a permissive contract and a powerful union, have been failing to show up for work in such numbers that jail officials are consistently unable to keep the requisite number of guards on each housing unit, much less provide for the safe transport of people from their cells to their medical appointments.

In December, Judge Elizabeth Taylor ordered the DOC “to make sick call available at each facility to all persons in DOC custody a minimum of five days per week within 24 hours of a request, or at the next regularly scheduled sick call, whichever is first,” and to “safely keep in the New York City jails each person lawfully committed to his custody by providing sufficient security for the movement of incarcerated persons to and from health services, and by not prohibiting or delaying incarcerated persons' access to care.”

But that didn’t happen. In a January 26 affidavit to the court, Ada Pressley, the DOC Bureau Chief of Facility Operations, conceded that the rate at which Rikers was getting people to their appointments “does not constitute substantial compliance” with the legal requirements. A significant impediment, Pressley wrote, was that the NYC jail system "saw the biggest increase in members of service out sick in December 2021 and January 2022, with 1,831 and 2,229 members of service reported sick, respectively.”

With the Department of Correction plainly admitting it was violating the law and the judge’s order, the plaintiffs in the suit made a motion in February to hold the DOC in contempt of court.

The DOC fought this, arguing they shouldn’t be held in contempt because complying with the law and the judicial order is all but impossible, with so many correction officers refusing to show up to work. The judge’s order, DOC claimed, “was impossible to meet because DOC lacked the personnel to adequately facilitate access to sick call and transportation to and from health care services.”

That argument didn’t wash with Judge Taylor. “The record is devoid of any evidence of respondent's factual impossibility to comply with the December 3, 2021 order,” she wrote, and DOC hasn’t even argued “that it lacks the authority or control to find a way to comply with the order.”

The Department of Correction is in contempt of court for continuing to lock people up without medical care, Judge Taylor concluded. If the City can’t show evidence within 30 days that it’s safely getting everyone in custody to their medical appointments, she will fine the city $100 for every missed medical appointment from December 11 of last year through the end of January, some 1,909 incidents.

Where things go from here remains unclear. There’s good reason to be skeptical that the Department of Correction will be any more capable of providing the legally required access to medical care in June than it has been over the preceding months. In February, DOC failed to get people to their medical appointments 8,402 times. In March, it was even worse, missing 12,745 appointments.

Asked about the ruling, a DOC spokesperson provided the following statement: “Ensuring people in custody get timely medical care is and always has been a priority for the Department of Correction. Commissioner Molina and his team are committed to addressing these issues.”

Rikers is also under a federal consent decree, a process which has so far failed to significantly improve conditions. In that case, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has argued that so long as the city claims that its union contracts and other labor regulations prevent it from making dramatic changes to the operation of city jails, the only path forward is a federal takeover of the jail system.

In the meantime, New York continues to send people to Rikers. Judges and prosecutors across the city sent people into the NYC jails system more than 13,000 times in the 12 months ending in March, overwhelmingly before they have had a chance to prove their innocence, on charges ranging from murder to shoplifting.

This article was updated with a comment from the Department of Correction.

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