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Rikers Island healthcare workers face alarming assault and threat levels, internal records show

A Vierno Center nurse said the staff, and the union, raise safety concerns on a regular basis and that short staffing remains a problem

Rikers Island

Todd Maisel

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The nurses and other medical staffers who work in the city jails are routinely threatened, pushed, groped and otherwise accosted hundreds of times a year, based on statistics and documents obtained by The New York Daily News.

In all, staffers with Correctional Health Services were threatened or assaulted verbally or physically 429 times, the majority skewing toward threats, in 2022, according to internal CHS workplace violence logs obtained by the Daily News.

In July 2023, a mental health clinician was stabbed in the face and arm in the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island by a detainee charged with fatally stabbing a man on a Manhattan subway train.

“You want to work in an environment with safety precautions in place, especially in a correctional setting with a mental health population,” said a nurse who has worked with general population and mentally ill patients in the Vierno Center; she asked her name not be used. “The reality is that the environment is not safe. When you go into work, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

The 2022 logs offer a window into the routine but largely unobserved challenges faced by CHS staff in the jails. Among the hundreds of entries:

—On Jan. 13, 2022, for example, a detainee hit a nurse with a computer, the records show.

—On Aug. 6, a detainee brandished a weapon and threatened to “murder” a nurse.

—On Oct. 26, a detainee grabbed a mental health counselor’s shirt and tried to pull her through a food slot.

—On Nov. 11, a detainee jumped off a stretcher to attack a nurse, who had to run into the nurse’s office and locked the door to escape.

—On Dec. 12, a nurse was punched in the face.

CHS declined to provide The Daily News with the logs for 2023. On March 20, The Daily News submitted a Freedom of Information request. HHC lawyer Carmen Genao wrote Tuesday the agency needed 20 days to respond.

Separately, HHC sources provided The News with figures that show 55 assaults, slashings with various types of liquid, and gropings in 2022 and 2023 serious enough that they could have led to criminal charges.

The Vierno Center nurse said the staff, and the union, raise safety concerns on a regular basis and that short staffing remains a problem. “When you keep making the same complaints and it falls on deaf ears, it creates a hostile environment and an environment of division,” she said.

CHS spokeswoman Nicole Levy said the staff gets training when they are hired and subsequently. A CHS safety team tours the housing units watching for safety concerns that are then referred to DOC.

In October, CHS Safety did walkthroughs with the unions of each jail and another round is set for June. DOC investigates any assault of CHS staff.

“The safety of our staff is our top priority,” Levy said. “Since becoming part of NYC Health + Hospitals, CHS has established an entirely new staff-safety operation at both the jail facility and central office levels.”

The mental health clinician who was stabbed in the Vierno Center in July 2023 needed stitches for his wounds. His alleged attacker, Claude White, was charged with the assault.

The 6-foot-3, 319-pound White had been arrested a month earlier in the killing of Tavon Silver on a Brooklyn-bound 4 train about 4 a.m. on June 17. He is currently being held in high security housing in the Rose M. Singer Center Correction Department records show.

In November, the union that represents nurses in the jails filed a complaint with the state, alleging a range of unsafe conditions in the PACE mental health unit at the Vierno Center and at the West Facility.

The New York State Nurses Association alleges that CHS didn’t set up a pre-opening inspection for a new PACE mental health unit in the Vierno Center. Meanwhile, a nurses area, the complaint says, is located far from a key security post and open to detainee tiers which makes it possible for detainees to throw things at the station and even jump into the area, the complaint claims.

“Recently, a DOC captain fell from the catwalk into the nurses’ area in the course of an altercation with a detainee,” the complaint states. “The failure to make this area safe is also a direct violation of the HHC/CHS Workplace Violence policy.”

Plastic barriers over detainee walkways which were supposed to be installed were not installed, the complaint states.

“The deteriorating security conditions at Rikers are well documented,” wrote David Pratt of the nurses association. “These conditions make the hazards specified above even more urgent.”

Levy said a PESH report is pending, but staff were told not to use the area.

Said a CHS staffer who requested anonymity: “We don’t even get hazard pay. It’s like they are saying you’re in Rikers, go f–k yourself. People don’t say anything because they’re afraid of retaliation.”

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