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Doctors, mental health staff at N.Y. prison had rap sheets, officials say

Investigators said eight of the provider's mental health workers at Rikers had prior criminal convictions -- including drug possession and second-degree murder.

By Doug G. Ware

NEW YORK, June 10 (UPI) -- Investigators for the City of New York on Wednesday painted a rather bleak portrait of medical and mental health services for inmates at the infamous Rikers Island prison facility.

During a news conference Wednesday, the New York City Department of Investigation detailed a number of accusations against Corizon Health, Inc. -- which, investigators said, hired physicians and mental health clinicians with a history of disciplinary problems and criminal convictions to work at the maximum security prison.

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New York officials have known about problems with Corizon, a for-profit provider, for years, the New York Times reported. Some of the past convictions for some workers include kidnapping and murder, investigators said.

Since September, authorities arrested three different Corizon employees in separate incidents for smuggling items inside the prison. The investigators' report said one of the arrestees was taken into custody last month for trying to "smuggle a straight edge razor."

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"Upon arresting this third employee, DOI learned that he had multiple prior felony convictions and served 13 years for kidnapping," the report said.

Additionally, eight members of Corizon's mental health staff at Rikers had prior criminal convictions -- including second-degree murder and drug possession, investigators said. Corizon, the report further states, had been aware of some of those legal issues when they hired the applicants.

Investigators said in all of the cases it examined, there was no evidence that Corizon conducted any kind of a background evaluation or verification of candidates' professional licenses.

The report also said that over the last six months, Corizon failed to properly provide the health services for which it was contracted.

"For example, DOI observed staff dispensing medication, including psychiatric medication, without engaging in basic precautions to make sure that inmates actually swallowed the pills they were prescribed," the report said.

"Further, on several occasions, Corizon staff improperly removed inmates from suicide watch or otherwise failed to supervise inmates with serious mental illnesses," it continued. "Two of those inmates died while unsupervised."

Also Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will not renew Corizon's contract at the end of the year -- which will end a 15-year relationship with the provider.

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"We have an essential responsibility to provide every individual in our city's care with high quality health services, and our inmates are no different," de Blasio said in a statement.

According to officials, the city has tried to hire a not-for-profit health organization to manage health at the prison, but had trouble getting such providers to even submit a bid.

De Blasio said Health and Hospitals Corporation will take over at Rikers once Corizon departs. HHC currently oversees the city's public hospitals.

The DOI report harshly criticized two city agencies that were responsible for managing Corizon -- the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Correction.

Corizon, however, disputed the investigation's conclusions and said lapses were the fault of the city's corrections and health agencies.

"Occasional errors and negative medical outcomes are inevitable in any health care setting, let alone in a highly challenging correctional environment," Corizon said. "But our personnel are involved with more than 800,000 inmate encounters a year, and the serious incidents highlighted in this report do not reflect the quality of care provided hundreds of times every day on the island."

Also Wednesday, three guards at Rikers Island were charged in the death of an ill inmate at the facility three years ago.

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