Teen's Death in Solitary Cell Shows Health Failures at Rikers Island: Suit

By Rosa Goldensohn on August 18, 2014 7:31am 

RIKERS ISLAND — Andy Henriquez, a 19-year-old from Washington Heights, whispered through the walls of his solitary cell on Rikers Island that he was dying.

He begged for a doctor while his fellow inmates screamed and kicked their doors in a fruitless bid to get help.

It was April 7, 2013, and a tear in Henriquez's aorta, an artery that supplies blood to the body, was making its way down to his groin. After days of chest pain he could barely breathe, but he still cried out, asking for a chance to call his mother to say goodbye.

A doctor who visited him that day prescribed him a hand cream and wrote the prescription in the wrong name. Henriquez was found dead on the floor of his cell hours later.

This wrenching account is detailed in court documents filed by Henriquez's mother, Sandra De la Cruz, a home health aide, who said she watched her son suffer with no treatment. She is now suing Corizon, a national company that covers medical care at the city's jails.

“I felt desperate. I felt despair, not being able to help my child,” De la Cruz told DNAinfo New York in Spanish from her lawyer's office recently.

“They should have let him leave. They should have taken him to the hospital. If I could have, I would have.”

De la Cruz is one of more than two dozen New Yorkers who have sued Corizon since 2012, accusing the company of negligence in medical care at Rikers and other correctional facilities.

At the same time, the company raked in $1.2 billion last year in revenue, according to a Moody's report, including tens of millions of dollars paid by the city.

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Henriquez's death came two years after New York's Commission of Correction had already opened an investigation into other state inmates' deaths under Corizon's watch, city records show.

The outcome of that investigation was unclear and the commission declined to say whether it had finished or what it had found.

Corizon and the city's Law Department declined to comment.

"Although we sympathize with Mr. Henriquez’s family for their loss, we cannot comment on ongoing litigation," the city's Department of Correction said in a statement.

Henriquez was 16 when he entered Rikers in June 2010, charged with murder and gang assault in the death of 17-year-old Mohamed Jalloh in Washington Heights. Henriquez was accused of being part of a group which attacked Jalloh and two other people, though Henriquez was not the one who fatally beat Jalloh with a machete, according to the criminal complaint and police.

Henriquez was still awaiting trial when he died nearly three years later.

The teen first complained of chest pain in September 2012, seven months before his death, and a physician's assistant at the jail's medical clinic diagnosed him with costochondritis, or joint pain near his heart, court documents show.

He was given that diagnosis at least eight separate times over the next seven months, but the Rikers clinic repeatedly sent him back to his cell without ordering a cardiac exam or any follow-up testing that could have revealed the tear in his artery, court documents show.

“He used to say ‘I don’t feel right, my chest hurts, I feel like I can’t breathe,'" according to Jesus Ramos, one of six Rikers inmates who said in depositions this spring that they had tried to get help for Henriquez as he was dying.

“I used to scream — bend down from under my door, scream under my door, ‘CO, CO, 5 cell needs medical attention.'"

Henriquez's mother and girlfriend visited him on April 6, the day before he died, and were alarmed to see the teen slumped over and in pain. They called 311 several times that day begging for emergency treatment for him, according to court records.

He was finally seen at the jail clinic later that night and was given the anti-inflammatory drug Naprosyn and the muscle relaxant Robaxin and sent back to his cell, according to court documents. Hours later, he was given a hand cream that was prescribed to a different name.

Correction officers were supposed to check on everyone in Henriquez's section of the jail at 15-minute intervals, but officers admitted in depositions that the checks did not happen like they were supposed to. The officers denied hearing any calls for help.

But Ernest Madison, who was in a nearby cell, said in a deposition that correction officers ignored Henriquez's cries.

“Then [on April 7], he was screaming again and that’s when they said, ‘Look, we took you yesterday. The doctor said you’re fine,'” Madison said in a deposition.

By the end of the night, Henriquez was dead. The cause was a tear in his aorta, the city's medical examiner ruled.

It's a condition that could have been treated in a hospital, saving Henriquez's life, according to Dr. Michael Golding, who is certified in heart and lung surgery in New York and wrote an expert medical report that is part of the lawsuit Henriquez's mother filed.

"It was a gross departure from proper medical standards" to put Henriquez in solitary confinement without a full medical exam and testing, Golding said in documents. If Corizon's medical team had followed "standard medical protocols for recurring chest pain...they could have easily established a diagnosis [and] prevented his suffering and untimely death."

Henriquez was just one of many Rikers inmates harmed by medical failures there, advocates say.

"We get calls complaining about access to medical care and inadequate medical care on a weekly basis," said Mary Lynne Werlwas, an attorney at The Legal Aid Society's Prisoners Rights Project.

"We're not a fan of the way they've been doing their job...and there's just been egregious health care."

Other lawsuits pending against Corizon include one from the family of a 32-year-old man who died of a bacterial infection in Rikers in May 2013, arguing that he would have survived if he'd received prompt medical care, court records show.

Prisoners who have sued also include a man who claims staffers overlooked his worsening leg problems, leading him to need an amputation, and a man with epilepsy who lost his vision after an assault and waited more than a month for glasses, court records show.

The city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has contracted Corizon for more than a decade, previously under the name Prison Health Services, city records show. The most recent three-year contracts pay a Corizon affiliate $280 million for medical care and more than $128 million for administrative support, according to the city comptroller's office. The two contracts are among the top 10 largest contracts in the city, according to a city report.

Corizon has been the subject of multiple investigations by the state's Commission of Correction, according to city records, including inquiries into inmate injuries and deaths, but still received a new contract from the Department of Health last year.

Corizon provides health services in correctional facilities across the country and has been the target of multiple probes involving its hiring practices and quality of care.

In Philadelphia, the company paid a $1.8 million settlement to the city in 2012 for exaggerating its hiring of minority workers. In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Corizon lost its contract for providing health care at a local jail after a federal report blamed the company for not properly treating a 49-year-old immigrant who had been detained.

The man was suffering a bacterial infection and died in October 2009 after he was not taken to a full-service hospital until it was too late, according to reports.

In New York, Corizon's contract ensures that the city will represent the Tennessee-based company in lawsuits and that taxpayers will cover the cost of medical malpractice judgments or civil rights violations, records show.

Advocates said the contract raises concerns about whether the for-profit company would be motivated to provide better care.

"These indemnification provisions create a perverse incentive for Corizon to provide substandard health care,” Carl Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in an email.

“These provisions essentially shield Corizon from the financial consequences of malpractice and constitutionally deficient medical care, because the [government] will pay any judgment or settlement.”

Corizon was also separately censured earlier this month by the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration for failing to protect its staff at Rikers and was fined $71,000, the Department of Labor said in a statement. 

More than a year after Henriquez's death, his family said the loss is still fresh. The men who were there alongside Henriquez that night say they are "haunted."

“He was screaming all day and all night,” Ernest Madison said in a deposition. “It’s not a joke. A little boy died. He was a kid."

With reporting by James Fanelli and Gustavo Solis

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