There were six suicides in New York City jails in six months in 2003, more than in any similar stretch since 1985. None of these people had been convicted of the charges that put them in jail. In five cases, reports the New York Times, government investigators reached a stinging judgment about one or both of the authorities responsible for their safety: Prison Health Services, the nation’s largest for-profit provider of inmate medical care, and the city correction system. Investigators faulted a system in which patients’ charts were missing, alerts about despondent inmates were lost or unheeded, and neither medical personnel nor correction officers were properly trained in preventing suicide, the leading cause of deaths in American jails.
The rash of suicides is one measure of the company’s uneven and at times troubling record in meeting that challenge, says the Times in the second of a three-part series focusing on the company. The paper also reports that ten psychiatrists with foreign medical degrees were allowed to practice without state certification for more than a year after they were supposed to have been fired for failing to pass the necessary test. The company has employed five doctors with criminal convictions, including one who had been jailed for selling human blood for phony tests to be billed to Medicaid. The city’s Board of Correction has complained that the company shuffles doctors from jail to jail – regardless of where they are needed – to avoid city fines and create the illusion that each building is properly staffed. Many of 30 current or former Prison Health employees who were interviewed described an effort that frequently fails to treat the mental illnesses that inmates take into jail and that follow them back out.