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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Emma Seiwell, John Annese and Graham Rayman

Rikers doctors accused of causing detainee’s death by botching drug withdrawal plan

NEW YORK — A new lawsuit claims city doctors botched a plan to ease a Rikers Island detainee with psychiatric issues off prescription drugs, causing a catastrophic seizure from withdrawal that led him to die.

Doctors with Correctional Health Services put Malcolm Boatwright, 28, on the withdrawal plan in November 2021 in an attempt to taper his body’s chemical dependency on clonazepam — a member of the benzodiazepine family of drugs that includes Xanax. Benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety, seizures and severe insomnia.

Three weeks later — on Dec. 7, 2021, after he supposedly completed the tapering program — Boatwright had a seizure and died. He was one of 35 detainees to die in Department of Correction custody in 2021 and 2022.

Boatwright had no prior history of epilepsy or seizure disorder, according to records from a Bellevue Hospital doctor who treated him. When his family sought the medical records from Correctional Health Services, the city agency that runs medical care for detainees, they got a file that was heavily redacted of relevant information.

The allegations are contained in a $10 million lawsuit filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court last week by Boatwright’s mother, Lashawn Boatwright, against the Correction Department and five medical staffers.

“I just want to know what happened. That’s it. I deserve that much,” said Boatwright, 53, who lives in East Flatbush. “I’m just a parent that lost a child, just sitting here … no answers.”

Correctional Health Services declined to comment, citing patient privacy laws.

The fourth of eight kids growing up in Brownsville, Malcolm Boatwright was on the autism spectrum and showed signs of anxiety and depression and expressed suicidal thoughts, his mother said. His father died of an aneurysm when he was 12 or 13, a trauma that he did not entirely recover from, she added.

In better periods, Malcolm Boatwright regularly went to church and enjoyed running errands for older folks in the neighborhood.

“He was very happy. Very jolly. He still had the mind of a kid. He had the mind of a 15-year-old,” his mother said. “He would come here every day and put on Tyler Perry. That was his thing.”

But he had also been an outpatient for years at the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center in Brooklyn, where he had taken cooking classes.

On Nov. 10, 2021, Malcolm Boatwright left the family apartment to see friends. There, a woman called police and accused him of inappropriately touching a 6-year-old boy.

Boatwright was slapped in cuffs, even as he vigorously denied touching the boy. He was formally arrested on Nov. 11, 2021, and charged with sex abuse and endangering the welfare of a child.

At his arraignment on the sex abuse charge, the judge ordered a special psychiatric evaluation to see if he was fit for a trial. Boatwright landed in Rikers on Nov. 12. During a required physical, he told the doctor he had been prescribed clonazepam and lithium.

It was not Boatwright’s first time at the notorious jail complex — he had done two prior stints there, in 2012 and 2013.

Despite his mental health history, his mother says, he was initially put in the general population instead of being sent to the psychiatric facility.

“He doesn’t belong there, and they took advantage of him,” Lashawn Boatwright said. “They were throwing hot water, feces, pee at him. They took his shoes and his clothes from him, the inmates.

“I was told that they sent him back to jail so he could be evaluated. That never happened,” the detainee’s mother continued. “I’m trying to understand, why did it take so long for him to be evaluated? They just threw him in there and left him to the wolves.”

The medical staff at Rikers decided Nov. 13 to put Malcolm Boatwright on the tapering program to wean him off the benzodiazepines — a process that is supposed to slowly reduce the dosage intended under Correctional Health Services policy to preserve the life and safety of detainees with similar dependencies.

“Who made that decision, how it was made, whether or not they made contact with his previous provider, medical provider — we don’t know,” said the Boatwright family’s attorney, Gregory Watts.

Boatwright was moved at some point to a mental observation unit in the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers. He was on the tapering regimen for 21 days, until Dec. 4.

Boatwright repeatedly told his mother he wasn’t feeling well, she recounted.

“He said, ‘Ma, the corrections officer is being mean to me. All I’m telling him is I’m sick, I’m not feeling well. All I kept saying was I wanna lay down, I wanna lay down,’” she quoted her son as telling her.

Four days later, on Dec. 8, Boatwright went into convulsions lasting several minutes.

“He started shaking, and this is observed by the Rikers Island personnel,” Watts said. “They then get the medical staff to figure out what’s going on. … He never had a history of seizure.

“I think they just screwed this up,” he added. “Hey, listen, nobody should die from a taper program.”

Medics took Boatwright to Bellevue Hospital, where he was given a CAT scan in an effort to determine what caused the seizure. He told his mother he thought he hit his head and blacked out.

The next day, while still at Bellevue, he had a second severe seizure again lasting several minutes, the lawsuit alleges.

“Same symptoms — shaking, involuntary movement of his body. He was on a gurney, he’s grabbing the gurney ... eyes are closed, moaning. Medical staff is witnessing this,” Watts said.

Hannah Conn, a Bellevue doctor, concluded in her notes on the case that since Boatwright had no prior seizure history, his problems must have been caused by withdrawal from the tapering program, the lawsuit claims.

Two more Bellevue doctors visited Boatwright and recorded no signs of a third seizure. On Dec. 10, he was found unresponsive just before 4 a.m. Bellevue doctors tried to revive him, but he died at 5:36 a.m.

The city Medical Examiner determined he died of natural causes — “complications of nontraumatic seizure disorder of undetermined etiology” — meaning pathologists could not say what caused the fatal seizure.

“That was troubling to me — how they said he died of natural causes, from a seizure,” the mother said. “That’s not natural causes, because he never had seizures in his life.”

Watts called the ME’s conclusion that Boatwright’s death was natural “bizarre.”

“How could that be a natural cause if somebody dies from a benzo withdrawal, no history of seizures?” Watts wondered.

Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the ME’s office, did not respond to requests for comment.

A day after his death, the Correction Department issued a statement calling Boatwright’s demise “a heart-breaking loss at the end of a very difficult year.”

Watts asked for Boatwright’s medical records. Bellevue turned over unredacted records in relatively short order, but Correctional Health Services mostly blacked-out the file, Watts said.

“They gave me 490 pages of medical records, and it’s all redacted,” said Watts, who plans to seek a court order for the unredacted records. “I said, ‘Hey, you can’t do this.’ … They have brushed me off.”

Watts said that Wanda Roberts, Correctional Health Services’ director of medical records, told him she’d been ordered to redact the records. “There was a conscious effort to redact it, while Bellevue didn’t redact anything,” Watts said.

The CHS spokeswoman said the agency follows state and federal regulations concerning patient information.

For Lashawn Boatwright, it’s been hard to get through the days and the nights. She sleeps on a couch in her living room next to the silver urn that contains her son’s ashes.

“I’ve been sleeping there on that couch for a year. I never went back in my bed. To be close to him. I sleep right there, every day,” she said.

“I dream about him every day. Like he’s trying to tell me something and I can’t figure it out.”


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