By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In Febuary 2004, Juan Dela Rosa, a drug-treatment counselor working for a private health-care provider at Rikers Island, sat down and wrote an earnest letter to a top state parole-division official about the importance of his work with a particularly vulnerable cross-section of inmates.
A very high percentage of the inmates are both drug-addicted and mentally ill, he noted. It is key, he continued, that the inmate population have access to counseling while incarcerated.
"As always, we here will continue with our efforts to assist our clients in the successful completion of mental health and drug treatment programs," Dela Rosa wrote in closing.
Three years later, at the mouth of the sprawling jail complex, at 8:20 a.m. on Sunday, January 6, Dela Rosa—the very same conscientious drug-treatment specialist who wrote that letter—was himself arrested on heroin and cocaine charges.
He had, the authorities said, more than 100 packets of "Black Gold" heroin hidden inside his jacket pocket. And he'd already sold cocaine to an undercover police officer. He was arraigned and held for several weeks at Rikers and then released on bail last week.
While the circumstances of the arrest suggested that Dela Rosa may have been dealing drugs at Rikers, Correction Department officials strenuously objected to the notion. "There is no indication of that," said spokesman Stephen Morello.
Moreover, a search of Dela Rosa's office didn't turn up any contraband. Still, the arrest raised a number of questions that remain unanswered.
The city Department of Health declined comment on any of the important questions, as did Prison Health Services, the mammoth, often controversial provider of medical services to jails around the country that was Dela Rosa's employer.
Jail sources, however, were more than willing to talk about Dela Rosa. Two people who observed him said that he'd more or less stopped doing his job in the months leading up to his arrest.
Though the treatment program for mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates was supposed to hold up to six meetings a day, Dela Rosa only ran two meetings per day, the sources said. He rarely left his office and often took long naps at his desk.
"He would just come in and sit in his office all day," a jail source says. "He was nodding off a lot."
Dela Rosa's office had books and tapes for various 12-step programs, as well as pamphlets for the Hazelden drug-treatment center.
"He was kind of a hell-raiser," a former co-worker said. "He always talked about the injustices in the jail system."
Dela Rosa had been employed by Prison Health Services since 2002. The company, in a statement, said that he had since been fired.
"While we cannot comment on the specifics of this incident, I can tell you PHS has a strict zero-tolerance policy on drugs in the workplace, and obviously would not condone or tolerate any criminal activity on the part of any staff member, in the workplace or elsewhere," spokesman John Van Mol said.
PHS has a $366 million contract with the city to provide medical care to the jails. The contract was renewed in 2005 despite a spate of negatives articles about the company's record of care and treatment in jails here and elsewhere.
Van Mol insisted that Dela Rosa was merely a counselor, not a supervisor. However, the Voice has obtained a couple of documents that indicate otherwise. One memo describes procedures for inmates chosen to help run the program "under the supervision" of Dela Rosa. Another memo refers to him as a "team leader."
Correction sources say that it would be shockingly easy for an employee to smuggle drugs and contraband onto Rikers island and into the facilities themselves. There is no frisk of employees on their arrival, though bags and parcels are checked. Vehicles are searched only on departure.
"It's unfortunate, but if someone has those bad intentions, it could be done," a Correction source said.
Calls to Dela Rosa's lawyer were not returned.