First Responders

Pummeled With Piss and Punches, Paramedics and EMTs Demand More Help at Rikers

October 2, 2021Joshua Skovlund
rikers island

The Rikers Island Prison complex as seen from an airplane in the borough of Queens in New York City, April 2, 2017. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters, courtesy of Alamy.

Inmates at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail routinely batter paramedics and emergency medical technicians with poop, spit, piss, and punches, forcing first responders to fend for themselves inside violent cell blocks, officials say.

At issue is the safety of New York City Fire Department paramedic and EMS crews responding to 911 calls placed by a jail that’s become notorious for fetid cockroach-infested living quarters, violent and cramped corridors laced with feces, and shrinking numbers of correctional officers who show up for work. 

New York City Department of Corrections leaders have pledged to assign guards to protect crews that arrive from outside the island, but first responders say the same officials won’t direct officers to escort the two EMS crews permanently assigned to the fortified complex.

“It’s a dire situation over there and our members are being exposed to life-and-death situations,” Oren Barzilay, union president of FDNY Local 2507, told Coffee or Die Magazine on Friday. “Sometimes when they are left alone with inmates, feces and urine are thrown at them, they are spit at and assaulted. It’s unacceptable.”

Neither the New York City Department of Corrections nor Rikers Island jail staffers returned Coffee or Die calls and emails seeking comment on Friday. 

In a Thursday memo to the New York City’s Office of Labor Relations, Barzilay wrote it was “unacceptable” for crews left unprotected by correctional officers to keep running medical calls inside the jail.

“The officer that lets the crew in should be married to them until the completion of the call. If an officer is not available, crews should not be going in,” Barzilay said.

When interviewed by Coffee or Die, Barzilay praised city correctional leaders for working to solve half of the problem over the past three months, but said “it’s too early to say” if they’ll assign escorts to the crews already stationed on the island.

Barzilay said he toured Rikers Island on Friday and met an EMT with visible signs of assault, telling Coffee or Die he “was actually beaten up pretty badly but he never reported it to us.” 

Most of the time, EMS crews assigned to the island can handle all emergency medical calls, but if they get occupied with patients or a crisis strikes, nearby units are rushed to Rikers.

Being forced to fight off inmate assaults not only puts first responders at risk but also jeopardizes patients who need emergency treatment, Barzilay said.

An FDNY circular issued Thursday reiterated to EMS crews that they shouldn’t enter unsecured areas of the prison complex without an escort. 

The order seeks to address the conflict felt by EMS and paramedics who have to weigh the risk to their safety with the immediate need to aid a suffering inmate.

Read Next: Rikers Island Misery: Poop Bags, Dead Inmates, and Ghost Guards

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.

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