Do Jails Kill People?
Date:  02-25-2019

Former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Service explains how "duel loyalty" can lead to the deaths of people in prison
From The New Yorker:

There may be no worse place to live in New York City than on Rikers Island, and it is an even worse place to die—locked inside of a jail, forcibly separated from family and friends. Most people whose lives end on Rikers die of natural causes, but there is no doubt that some deaths there have been caused by the culture and conditions of Rikers itself. This tally of preventable deaths includes: Jason Echevarria, twenty-five, who swallowed a packet of soap in his cell, screamed in agony for hours, and died after guards refused to take him to the medical clinic; Carlos Mercado, forty-five, a diabetic in desperate need of insulin, who collapsed in a hallway his first day in jail; Ronald Spear, fifty-two, a kidney-dialysis patient, who died after being kicked in the head by a guard.

Every year, several thousand people across the country die while imprisoned. Local officials report the number of deaths to the Department of Justice, but very little attention is paid to the question of how many of these deaths could have been prevented. Several years ago, Homer Venters, a physician and the former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Services, sought to answer this question. Between 2010 and 2016, there were a hundred and twelve deaths in New York City jails. Venters and his team found that ten to twenty per cent of those deaths each year were “caused by actions taken inside the walls” of a jail. He calls these “jail-attributable deaths,” and writes that some years the percentage of such deaths “rose to half or more.”

Reporters have virtually no access to the jails on Rikers Island, but, for many years, Venters had a rare vantage point from which to observe its inner workings. He started working on Rikers in 2008, overseeing health care for thousands of people imprisoned there. On an island known for abuse and violence, Venters became a legendary figure; he often spoke about human rights and was known for his persistent advocacy on behalf of inmates. He left the city’s jail-health service in 2017, and now he has written a crucially important book, “ Life and Death in Rikers Island,” in which he examines one of the most overlooked aspects of mass incarceration: the health risks of being locked up. Continue reading >>>