New York City’s Rikers Island jail has long been known as one of the worst such institutions in the country. Now, a new book by Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Services, outlines just how deadly Rikers Island is.
From 2008 to 2017, Venters oversaw the health care of Riker’s Island inmates, and his book, “Life and Death in Rikers Island,” examines the health risks of mass incarceration.
Jail Attributable Deaths
From 2010 to 2016, 112 people died in the jails of New York City. Approximately 15 percent – as estimates range between 10 and 20 percent – of those deaths were “jail attributable” in Venters’ words, meaning they resulted because of actions occurring within the jail.
Even more frightening, Venters alleges that in some years, half of all jail deaths were jail attributable. Most of those actions resulted from beatings by fellow inmates or by guards.
Slip and Falls
When Venters and his staff began looking into jailhouse injuries, they found that the bulk of them resulted from fights between inmates. However, the second highest category of jail injuries was listed in official records as “slip and falls.”
Venters and staff put together a surveillance system for documenting slip and fall injuries, and they discovered that inmates were telling the medical staff that they “slipped and fell” when they came for treatment, rather than telling the truth: Corrections officers had beaten them.
Inmates feared retaliation, so if a guard broke an inmate’s nose, the inmate would tell healthcare providers that his nose was broken in a shower slip and fall. Further investigation by Venters showed that many inmate injuries, as reported, made little sense when compared to their stories of how the injuries occurred. He gives as an example an inmate with a broken jaw who claimed he fell off the toilet.
Hiding Injured Inmates
Venters also found that guards hurt some inmates so severely that they would hide them, moving the injured party to out-of-the-way cells. In December 2012, some guards went further, beating two inmates were who strapped to gurneys and in the jail’s medical clinic.
The guards told the clinic’s staff to move into the back of the clinic, then began beating the inmates. While there was a formal investigation into this incident, no criminal charges against the corrections officers were filed.
Beaten to Death
A kidney dialysis patient, Ronald Spear, was not feeling well and repeatedly asked to see a doctor. Finally, he snuck out of his assigned dorm and went to the nearby medical office.
An officer named Brian Coll stopped him, and the two began fighting. Two other guards pinned Spear down, but Coll started to kick the inmate repeatedly in the head. Spear died within minutes.
During Coll’s 2016 trial, three members of the medical staff appeared on the witness stand. Their testimony gave credence to medical staff ignoring what guards did to inmates. A nurse on duty testified that although she heard sounds outside of her office like “bodies hitting the ground,” she didn’t investigate.
Neither did the doctor on duty, who said he was busy with paperwork. It wasn’t until a police captain came into the medical clinic and asked the doctor to look at Spear that the doctor saw him, and pronounced him as not having a pulse.
Searching for Patients
Venters says that Rikers Island guards used paper logbooks to record inmates’ comings and goings, and in many cases, inmates were moved without any records. Because of this haphazard inmate tracking, medical staff had to search all over the facility looking for their patients.
Venters calls this archaic system “the single greatest contributor to neglect and abuse in jails.”
Placing the Blame
Who is responsible for this devastating state of affairs at Rikers Island, which New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to close? Venters blames City Hall, which he says has ignored the conditions in the jails and allowed a culture of “mismanagement and brutality” to take hold.
Venters places equal blame on both de Blasio and his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, stating, “ I have seen remarkable consistency in how the incompetence of the correctional service was not only tolerated but also supported.”
Inmates have the right not to be abused. If you or a loved one has suffered mistreatment in jail or prison, you have legal options and may be entitled to compensation. CALL US at 866.836.4684 or Connect Online to learn how we can help you file a federal civil rights lawsuit.