Doctor ousted from Rikers for criticizing Department of Corrections heads to sue New York City for free speech and retaliation
A respected doctor who treated thousands of patients on Rikers Island for nearly five years was abruptly thrown out of jails in November for his outspoken criticism of the Department of Corrections’ management, the Daily News has learned.
James Uhrig had worked under contract for the city’s Correctional Health Services since April 2018, treating detainees for a variety of acute illnesses, chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, HIV and substance use disorders, and psychological trauma.
In early November, without warning, Uhrig, 69, learned that a notice had been posted in jails with his photo saying he could not enter Department of Corrections facilities, documents he submitted to the charge of the city.
He was then notified by his direct employer, the Physician Affiliate Group of New York, that the Department of Corrections had revoked his security clearance, effectively costing him his job.
In a notice of claim required before he can sue the city, Uhrig alleges he was barred because social media posts he made under his real name between June and November were critical to the operations of the Department of Correction.
They included publications on fentanyl overdose, deaths on Rikers Island in 2021 and 2022conditions, overcrowding and officers caught bringing in contraband, the claim says.
“Our client, Dr. James Uhrig, a revered physician dedicated to healing people languishing behind bars in our city’s decrepit jails, was constructively fired from his position for daring to voice his legitimate concerns about deadly conditions. on Rikers Island and the failures of its commissioner, Louis Molina,” said attorney Sarena Townsend, who is representing Uhrig with attorney David Erlich.
“Without violating any confidentiality or security, Dr. Uhrig publicly supported federal receivership, a judicial intervention that would likely put Commissioner Molina out of a job.”
In some of the tweets, Uhrig pointedly questioned Molina’s policies and tagged him.
Townsend and Erlich said Molina’s move was designed to send a “chilling message” to all jail employees.
“Instead of keeping a respected and dedicated physician on his team at a time when the DOC is unable to provide timely medical care to his detainees, Molina preferred to shame him and fire him,” the attorneys said.
Uhrig’s ban is one of a number of examples of the Adams administration’s efforts to limit dissent on prisons.
They include cutting off the Board of Corrections’ remote access to security video, convincing a judge to keep a federal monitor’s report secret, and obstructing requests for information from Congress and the City Council.
“Dr. Uhrig was willing to dive into the chaos at Rikers and go the extra mile to provide excellent care to people who desperately need it, and to speak honestly about what he saw there,” said Sarita Daftary, co-director of the advocacy group. Freedom Agenda…
“Banning him from doing this job because of some tweets shows that the DOC is more concerned with hiding his dysfunction than providing critical medical care to those in their custody.”
Molly Biklen, deputy legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the US Supreme Court has held that government contractors like Uhrig do not lose their constitutional right to speak on issues of public interest, which would include conditions at Rikers.
“It appears to be another example of the DOC trying to shut down public scrutiny at a time when more discussion is important,” Biklen said.
Neither the Department of Correction nor Correctional Health Services officials responded to requests for comment. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Philip Banks, who oversees the Department of Corrections, also did not respond.
During his 44-year career, Uhrig has worked in public health in more than 20 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the US in HIV prevention and care and in response to outbreaks of many other diseases.
He has worked with the World Health Organization and the United Nations. He also speaks Nepali, Vietnamese, and conversational Hindi.
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“He is an excellent doctor, very thorough and conscientious, with incredible experience, which makes what happened even more horrifying,” said a former colleague of Rikers.
Uhrig is also not the only Rikers doctor to publicly criticize the operations of the Department of Corrections.
Ross McDonald, the medical director of the prison system, wrote to the City Council in September 2021: “We have witnessed a breakdown in basic jail operations that today I do not believe the city is capable of safely managing.”
After that letter was made public, McDonald was not fired or publicly censured. He is now the medical director of City Health + Hospitals / Woodhull.
In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Rachael Bedard, a physician and senior director of geriatrics and complex care services for prisons, posted a tweet calling for the release of at-risk detainees at a time when that position was not supported. by the de Blasio administration.
In a New Yorker article published in October 2021, Bedard criticized the Department of Corrections’ response to COVID. “We had guys sitting in pens, waiting for admission, even before they were seen for their COVID test,” she told the magazine.
But Bedard kept his job and left on his own terms. She has just been appointed to the Board of Correction by the City Council.