June 14, 2006

Propose Inmate And Worker Protection

The community reeled at the accusations leveled against a Sag Harbor physician's assistant earlier this year. A half dozen female inmates at the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead alleged Gary Feinberg engaged in sexual misconduct during medical examinations in the facility. They claim he touched them inappropriately. Not long after the accusations were reported, Feinberg was found dead of an apparent suicide. He threw himself in front of a speeding train near the Amagansett station, police believe.

Beyond the incredible nature of the incident – locals who knew Feinberg found the allegations almost impossible to believe – the first question on most peoples' lips was, "Why was a male medical professional left alone with female inmates?" Officials from the county health department, which runs the medical operations at the jail remained mum, especially after one inmate launched a $10 million lawsuit against both the county and Feinberg days before the suspect's death.

County Legislator Jay Schneiderman was among those asking the question. Last week, he debuted a bill that, if adopted, would ensure such a tragedy could never happen again. The law sets a policy requiring that no medical professional practicing in the jail be left alone with a patient of the opposite sex. "Certainly the local situation exposed a vulnerability in the system," the lawmaker opined. "We'll never know who was right and who was wrong because there's no witness."

The proposal has already received support from the county sheriffs, according to Schneiderman. Laura Ahearn, director of the advocacy group Parents for Megan's Law, also has weighed in favorably. If adopted the bill would provide double protection, she pointed out. Not only would it ensure the safety of inmates, but it would also reduce the chances of false claims against the health care providers.

It would seem like a no-brainer to the average person. Most male professionals in private practice eschew being left alone with female patients. So far, however, concern has been voiced about the expense of extra staff, as well as how adoption of such a bill could impact the pending lawsuit.

The cost of adding staff to any department is always a concern, but, said Ahearn, "This is a dual protection that is well worth the expense."

Parents for Megan's Law is a victim's rights organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of childhood sexual abuse. Megan's Law was passed in 1996, inspired by the tragic death of seven year-old Megan Kanika, the New Jersey youngster who was raped and killed by a known sex offender who moved in across the street from the victim's New Jersey home. The national law requires every state to develop procedures for alerting the public when a convicted sex offender is released into a community.

Schneiderman's proposal was discussed in committee last week, and tabled for further consideration.

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