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Overdose Rate in New York Jails and State Prisons Double U.S. Average

by Jacob Barrett

According to an October 2022 report by the New York Attorney General’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), the state’s prisons and jails have a drug overdose rate “double the rate for the overall United States population.”

Conditions in New York City’s Rikers Island have deteriorated to the point that a federal court has threatened the jail with receivership. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.44.] However, the city Department of Correction (DOC) experienced just 20 of the 120 prisoner and detainee overdose deaths that OSI tabulated between September 2021 and August 2022. Jails in the state’s other 57 counties accounted for 22 more, while the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) had the remaining 78.

Of course, DOCCS also held the largest share of incarcerated New Yorkers: 31,000 of 46,600 total. DOC averaged 5,800. County jails held the remaining 10,000 or so.

Still the report reveals that the number of fatal overdoses in the state’s prisons and jails has doubled over the last two years, partly due to negligence by guards who failed to properly screen and monitor prisoners for contraband. The report also faulted guards for ignoring open drug use and falsifying log records when it was not ignored.

Autopsies were available for only 23 of those 120 overdose deaths. But they showed that almost three-quarters – 17 – were chalked up to fentanyl. The rest involved methamphetamine, “synthetic marijuana” and, in one case, methadone.

Elias Esias Johnson, 24, was a pre-trial detainee at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island when he was found dead in his cell from acute methadone intoxication on September 7, 2021, just one day before he was due in court. Johnson was in rigor mortis by the time that his death was reported. Video revealed officers falsified cell-check records and did not conduct rounds as required.

In another incident still being investigated, video revealed at least one guard observed an “obviously intoxicated” prisoner for several hours before he died. But the guard took no action to call a medical team, in violation of jail policy.

In another case, video showed prisoners rolling and smoking contraband in plain sight of guards who took no action to seize it.

The report recommended several “common-sense” steps to reduce the number of prisoners at risk of overdosing, such as requiring initial screening for signs of drug use during intake. Screening of medical records was also recommended to determine drug use history and co-occurring mental health disorders. Even if detainees and prisoners are not initially identified as likely to abuse drugs, personnel must follow up and, where indicated, take appropriate action, such as putting them on enhanced watch or housing them in a supportive unit. The report also recommended equipping guards with Narcan to use when prisoners are found unresponsive from suspected drug overdoses. Finally, the report added, it would be good to require guards simply to enforce rules of good order that already exist.

New York has made some efforts to pass legislation to reduce drug overdoses, including a bill to expand medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which has proven highly effective in California. [See: PLN, Dec. 2022, p.42.] But officials must address the problem of guard negligence and misconduct, which has contributed to the continued rise in drug overdoses. See: 2nd Annual Report Pursuant to Exec. Law 70-B, N.Y.O.A.G. (2022).

Additional source: Albany Times-Union

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