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NYC mayor backs correction commissioner in Rikers doctor ban over social media posts

Dr. James Uhrig filed a claim with the city alleging the ban violated his free speech rights


Photo/Luiz C. Ribeiro/N.Y. Daily News/Tribune News Service

By Michael Gartland, Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Mayor Adams on Wednesday defended Correction Commissioner Louis Molina’s decision to bar a respected doctor from the jails over his social media posts critical of the Correction Department.

Adams said Dr. James Uhrig posted comments regarding the smuggling of fentanyl into the jails “in contradiction to” statements by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mayor did not specify exactly what comments he was referring to.

“He’s a doctor. He should know the level of professional standards that he should carry out,” Adams said. “He put out information that was in contradiction to the CDC. People were putting fentanyl in mail. They were soaking it in mail. His statement was in contradiction to that.”

“I think it’s just inappropriate to have someone that is openly going to contradict the CDC.”

As the Daily News reported Monday, Uhrig learned in early November that he had been barred from access to the jails where he had treated thousands of patients over nearly five years. Correction Department officials gave no explanation at the time for the action, which effectively cost Uhrig his job.

Uhrig posted comments about fentanyl and many other things related to Rikers, including expressing support for the installation of a federal receiver to oversee the jails. However, he never discussed his own work or violated patient confidentiality.

He filed a notice of claim with the city alleging the ban violated his free speech rights and amount to retaliation by Molina.

Asked about Adams’ comments, Uhrig’s lawyer Sarena Townsend countered: “As usual, the law sharply diverges from Mayor Adams’ opinion and Commissioner Molina’s actions. Now that we know the basis of their illegal actions, we are more confident than ever that we will succeed on Dr. Uhrig’s legal claims.”

Adams also reitierated his support for Molina and asserted that Uhrig was “not an employee.” Uhrig was employed by the Physician Affiliate Group, which works under contract with city Correctional Health Services.

“This guy [Molina] is doing a good job, and, you know, we’re not going to spend our time talking about a doctor that wasn’t an employee,” Adams added. “We have major things to deal with at Rikers Island, and that’s my focus. The courts can deal with his lawsuit.”

But City Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) said barring an experienced physician from the jails for his social media posts sends the wrong message. Many people, she noted, supported a federal takeover of the jails.

“Correctional health is not easy to begin with, and when you have someone so competent, I would think you would want to keep them,” Brewer said. “I was upset someone so qualified and committed would not be able to continue. You would want to keep someone like that.”

James Flannery, a retired physician’s assistant who worked with Uhrig at the Eric M. Taylor Center at Rikers, described him as “very well respected” and called barring him a violation of his free speech rights. “He was A1 in my book,” said Flannery, who worked in the jails for 25 years.

Jerome Wright, co-director of the #HALTsolitary Campaign, said, “The mismanagement of this department is astounding. [The Correction Department] should be bringing in the best possible health care staff and addressing its own often deadly failures to get detained people to their appointments.”

Last year, a judge in the Bronx fined the city roughly $200,000 for failing to fix an ongoing problem at the jails on bringing people to their medical appointments. The city is appealing the ruling.

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