A new study set to be published in June reveals that health care workers in a notorious New York jail put their ethical values aside when providing treatment to patients. Harboring dual loyalties, providers have to comply with facility guidelines, even though the facilities’ treatment of prisoners runs undermines inmate health.
Data from a two year study of health records, survey responses, focus groups, and interviews found that medical providers feel morally conflicted about policies and practices enforced at Rikers Island. Many of the 1,400 health care workers , who tend to the needs of 11,000 inmates, feel a conflict of interest when their primary duty is to protect the interests of patients, while working in a system that can exacerbate medical problems.
For instance, one-third of mental health staff affirmed their ethics are jeopardized during the course of their jobs. A major concern, for example, is the use of solitary confinement, which can alter ones physiology and contribute to psychiatric grievances. Mental health providers have to grapple with the concept of solitary, even though patients frequently express that they’ll hurt themselves if they’re forced in isolation.
Guards’ physical abuse of prisoners is another gripe shared by medical staff. Roughly 90 percent of workers have tended to an inmate who claimed his wounds were inflicted by a guard, even though an official record said the injuries were incurred during a fight with another inmate. And 16 percent witnessed or learned about guards beating inmates, but were afraid to speak up.
“A bedrock principle is that the physician’s primary ethic is to act in the interests of the patients,” UC Riverside School of Medicine’s Dr. Scott Allen, told the Associated Press. “These conflicts are built in to jails and prisons because of the conflicting missions of what security needs to do versus what medical needs to do.”
Meanwhile, several city council members recently condemned Rikers’ health care system as alarmingly deficient. Corizon, the for-profit provider linked to “inhumane” practices nationwide, services Rikers, where a number of preventable deaths occurred in the last year. In many cases, workers didn’t even attempt to treat inmates in desperate need of care, leaving city leaders searching for new providers.
Prisoners screamed and kicked doors to get prison staff to help 19-year-old Andy Henriquez, who died of a torn aorta in his cell. In the days leading up to his death, Henriquez mentioned chest pains was told to use hand cream by a physician who put the wrong patient’s name on the prescription. Henriquez never got an X-ray.
Marine veteran Jerome Murdough baked to death in an overheated solitary cell in Rikers’ mental observation unit, after staff who were supposed to check in on the mentally ill inmate every 15 minutes ignored him for four hours.
According to information uncovered by the Associated Press, nine out of 11 suicides and 15 health-related deaths may have been caused by breakdowns in procedures and protocols.