A healthcare counselor at Rikers was arrested last week for attempting to sell cocaine to an undercover cop less than a block away from the bridge to the detention facility. Apparently this was his second bust in the past year. He was responsible for counseling 40 inmates with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders—the hardest cases to treat, even if you yourself are clean. He was an employee of Prison Health Services, a national prison healthcare provider that is the city’s sole contractor for healthcare in city detention facilities—a contract worth $366 million.
Observers have known this is a shady company for a long time. Since the city first contracted with Prison Health in 2001, the New York Times has done some great investigative reporting on the company, including a weeklong series, “Harsh Medicine,” published in the last week of February and first week of March 2005. The series looked at how a spate of suicides in 2004 and 2005 and the company's liability, how the inmate patients weren't necessarily the bad guys, whether the quality of service violated legally required standards of treatment, the city's inconsistent and inadequate efforts at oversight, and the myriad heads a- rollin' that resulted from the increased scrutiny on the company’s performance.
Between late February 2005 and January 2006, the Times wrote over a dozen pieces on Prison Health Services, starting with the “Harsh Medicine” series and tracking the follow-up. Most of the series was written by Paul von Zielbauer, the Times prison health beat reporter.
But from January 2006 until last week, the Times didn’t run a single story on Prison Health Services. (Zielbauer has been covering the wars from Iraq and Afghanistan since July 2006.) It published only two stories on Rikers healthcare in the past two years.
The Times dropped the ball on this important issue. It did great investative work over the course of a year, but turned off the spotlight as soon as some good things started to happen. It appears editors decided that their coverage adequately stirred the pot, though the underlying situation (e.g., the contract between the city and the shady provider) remained the same.
Sad, and an indication of how newsroom cuts hit metro beats and investigative teams the hardest... even with the country's paper of record.