Panel Faults Progress of Prison Health
By ERIC LIPTON
June 15, 2001
Medical treatment given to 13,500 city inmates is not improving as
quickly as city officials had hoped when they hired a Tennessee-based,
for-profit company six months ago to revamp medical and mental health
services at Rikers Island, officials on an oversight board said
The death this week of a 37-year- old inmate who had to wait an hour
and 10 minutes before an ambulance was called has only heightened
broader concerns about the performance of the company, Prison Health
Services. The company started work in January on a three-year, $314
Members of the Board of Correction, a citizens' committee appointed
by the mayor and the City Council to monitor treatment of inmates,
discussed several incidents yesterday at their monthly meeting,
including the escape of a prisoner on Wednesday, the suicide of an
inmate on May 22, a recent accidental gun discharge by a correction
officer and a fight between two captains at the Brooklyn House of
Detention. They also discussed the death on Tuesday of Anthony Rizzo of
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the third inmate to die this year after being
attacked by another prisoner.
"It was most unusual, most unusual," David A. Schulte, who
has served on the Correction Board since the early 1960's, said of the
many incidents that needed to be discussed.
Delays in getting inmates to specialists for needed medical treatment
and the rapid turnover among top-level Prison Health Services staff
members — three different medical directors so far — had already led
some to question the company's services.
"I am having increasing concerns that the delivery of services
is not at the level where it ought to be," said David Lenefsky, a
board member. "The warning signs are there."
But several board members said the company did appear to be making
efforts to correct the problems.
Colleen Roche, a Prison Health Services spokeswoman, said the company
remained "absolutely committed to quality care for the
"We recognize there is a need for continued improvement,"
Ms. Roche said. The fact that there have been three medical directors,
while not ideal, showed that the company was willing to move quickly to
deal with a problem if one existed, she said.
Board members questioned the commissioner of correction, William J.
Fraser, about several of the recent incidents. A 19-year-old inmate
whose family had been unable to raise bail was the first suicide this
year, the commissioner said.
The search is continuing for Carlos Zufriatequi, 29, a suspect in a
burglary, who somehow sneaked out of a Rikers Island detention center
about 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday. The officer who accidentally discharged
his weapon in late April while on a bus filled with inmates has been
disciplined. And one of the captains involved in the Brooklyn dispute on
May 1 was suspended, Mr. Fraser said.
But board members seemed most concerned about what they perceived as
shortcomings in health care, especially since they had had high
expectations for Prison Health Services, which was brought in after a
trouble-plagued three-year contract with St. Barnabas Hospital in the
Ernesto Marrero Jr., the executive of the Health and Hospitals
Corporation who monitors the performance of Prison Health Services and
helped draft the company's contract, said that he too was somewhat
disappointed with the company's work so far.
"They are not living up to all aspects of the contract,"
Mr. Marrero said, adding that a formal performance evaluation to be
released next week on 34 criteria would be a "mixed bag."
Health care has improved, he said, citing as one example the
assignment of doctors during all shifts at each of the 10 jails on
Rikers Island, instead of merely the physician's assistants who
sometimes filled in during the St. Barnabas tenure.
But Mr. Marrero said there had been sporadic problems getting inmates
to specialists, like cardiologists or neurologists, within the time
recommended by doctors who first see the inmates needing more advanced
Mr. Rizzo's death on Tuesday is still being investigated. He was
beaten on Monday by other inmates while at the Anna M. Kross Center on
Rikers Island, but he declined medical attention. At 4:35 a.m. Tuesday,
medical personnel were called after Mr. Rizzo fell to the ground and
could not get up. His blood pressure had dropped, apparently because of
internal bleeding, city officials said.
Mr. Rizzo arrived at a prison health clinic at 5 a.m. and was treated
by prison doctors, but an ambulance was not called until 5:45 a.m.
According to city records, he did not arrive at the Elmhurst Hospital
Center cardiac emergency room until 7:05 a.m. He was pronounced dead at
"That is no good," said Canute C. Bernard, a Board of
Correction member and retired surgeon. "By the time they got him to
the emergency room, he was already gone."
Mr. Marrero said that it might not have been immediately evident that
Mr. Rizzo needed hospital care. But Dr. Bernard said he perceived the
time lags as a sign of a continuing, broader problem. "They are
still not able to give full response in an acceptable time for serious
injury to get acceptable results."