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New York City Distancing Itself From Corizon Health Services

New York City left private jail medical contractor Corizon Health Services to defend itself against a federal lawsuit brought by the mother of a deceased inmate named Bradley Ballard. In 2013, Ballard died in a solitary cell covered in his own feces with a rubber band tied tightly around his infected genitals. He suffered from multiple mental illnesses and spent days in isolation without food or water, much less medication and treatment.

The New York Daily News reports the city withdrew from defending Corizon through a provision in their contract that allows them to do so “in cases of ‘intentional misconduct or a criminal act.'”

Ballard’s death was one of the motivating cases behind the wave of reforms currently aimed at the city’s jail system. In addition to actions brought by the Justice Department and De Blasio administration, the city finally decided in June of this year it would not renew its contract with Corizon. The company had held $367 million in healthcare agreements at Rikers since 2008.

But while the city may have the legal right to back out of defending Corizon’s conduct in this case, the decision should not obscure their own culpability in Ballard’s death and the conditions that nurtured it. The city hired Corizon after all and they decided to keep them on the job for nearly a decade, despite stories of gruesome deaths, obstructed access to medication and care, and disturbing negligence to the obvious medical needs of their patients at Rikers and across the nation.

In Ballard’s case, it wasn’t just medical staff neglecting his emergency medical needs — guards were seen on video tape doing the exact same thing. It was only after the press got the attention of  city council and the federal government, through the tragic stories of inmate families, that the city took action.

The city hasn’t excelled at making good decisions about jails in recent years. The gross misconduct we see today was enabled by generations of corrupt leaders at the New York City Department of Corrections, some of whom are still in positions of power today. Take, for example, former NYC Jails Comissioner Dora B. Schriro, who came on the year after Corizon began working in the city. Under Schriro’s leadership, violence in the city’s prisons climbed to historic levels.

In 2011, towards the end of Schriro’s tenure, her administration named William Clemons warden and Turhan Gumusdere as his deputy. Almost immediately after they were appointed, juvenile violence rates plummeted on the island. Schriro, Clemons and Gumusdere were celebrated for the turn-around.

Then, as reported by The New York Times last year, Corrections Department investigators received a tip: someone doctored the numbers to make department leaders look good. Investigators looked into the claim, writing a confidential report showing that “hundreds of inmate fights had been omitted” from the record, and that the warden and his deputy “‘abdicated all responsibility’ in reporting the statistics.” The report recommended demotion for both men.

But that’s not what happened:

The commissioner at the time, Dora B. Schriro, did not demote the men. Instead, she ordered the removal from the report of any implication that the pair were culpable, current and former officials said.

Then city officials provided only the sanitized report to the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which was conducting its own investigation into potential civil rights violations in the handling of teenage inmates at Rikers. As part of its investigation, the office had made repeated requests to the Correction Department for all relevant documents and asked, in particular, for any materials associated with audits or reviews related to violence by staff on adolescent inmates or between the inmates themselves.

Both men were subsequently promoted by the new commissioner, De Blasio’s “reformer” Joseph Ponte, despite the controversy surrounding the violence statistics. Clemons was given the highest uniformed position in the department. Gumusdere still leads the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers island. Ponte defended their promotions and Clemons retired last fall. Schriro, the former jails commissioner, was selected to serve as the Public Safety Commissioner in Connecticut after leaving her post in New York. None of these people face any repercussions for their actions.

Once Ponte took over, his department more-or-less worked with Corizon to reduce the quality of life in the city’s jails even further. For example, when the city’s Department of Investigation found Corizon regularly failed to conduct adequate background checks of its employees, the New York Daily News reported that “the city greatly contributed to the problem, with a correction official letting hundreds of Corizon worker fingerprint cards that were supposed to be checked for criminal records pile up on a file cabinet.”

Ponte was reportedly notified of this issue in October 2014, but didn’t remedy it until May 2015 — nearly seven months later.

Corizon definitely deserves to be held accountable for its conduct in the Ballard case and many others. But let’s not forget the role that these officials played in producing the jail crisis the city faces today.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.