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Arkansas Juvenile Prisons Cornell Kills a Prisoner, Hires Guard DOC Fired

by Matthew T. Clarke

Arkansas paid Cornell Corporations of Houston, Texas, $9.5 million a year to manage the Alexander Youth Services Center in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. What they got for their money was a prison that killed by medical neglect a juvenile prisoner with a blood clot in her lungs whose requests for medical attention had been ignored for weeks. The prison also hired a guard the Arkansas Department of Corrections (DOC) had fired for having sex with a prisoner. What Cornell's mismanagement earned them was a recommendation for extension of their contract from the state legislature.

John Berry, 40, was a 16-year veteran of the Arkansas Department of Correction and a sergeant when he was accused of having sex with a prisoner. An internal affairs investigation concluded that Berry had sex with a prisoner at the Tucker maximum security prison. This finding, bolstered by his failing a lie detector test, led to his firing in October 2002.

No criminal charges were filed against Berry. Therefore, he passed a criminal history background check conducted by Cornell when they hired him. Berry also filed a federal civil rights suit against the DOC alleging the DOC violated his due process rights when it fired him. However, that suit was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in May 2005. According to Berry's lawyer, he continues to maintain his innocence.
Michael Hurst, director of Alexander, said he only heard vague allegations against Berry which he failed to investigate when Berry was hired. Hurst said he wanted to talk to the Jefferson County attorney about what to do with Berry, but that office is currently vacant.

Meanwhile, state legislators were expressing outrage at the mishandling of prisoner medical services at Alexander. Seventeen-year-old LaKeisha Brown had been doing time at Alexander for two years and was due to be released in May 2005. Instead of being released in May, her body was released in April. She died of a blood clot in the lungs on April 9, 2005.
On the day of her death, Brown could hardly walk or leave her bed. She had been complaining of difficulty breathing and tiredness in the days before she died. She had also repeatedly complained of back pain, shortness of breath and chest pains in January and February. Her frequent complaints caused the private prison's doctor to order psychiatric care for her. Every indication is that the medical staff at Alexander simply did not believe Brown and ignored her pleas for medical attention.

At 6:00 a.m. on the day she died, a nurse observed Brown with blue lips and complaining of being cold and having a hard time breathing. The nurse asked that an ambulance be called. Her supervisor overruled her. No one even called the prison's doctor until she collapsed, unconscious and no ambulance was summoned until three and a half hours later. It was not the first time Brown had collapsed, she had done so several times in the previous days, it was just the last time she collapsed at Alexander.
State Public Defender Commission Juvenile-Services Ombudsman Scott Tanner helped Brown get an appointment with a gynecologist after she complained about menstrual problems for months. He didn't understand why she didn't tell him of her other medical problems and the medical department's refusal to address them. Later he discovered that her therapist had told Brown that her frequent medical requests could endanger her planned May 1 release.
Unfortunately, Cornell is poised to get away with this criminally negligent homicide. An Arkansas State Police investigation found no criminal wrongdoing. Cornell hasn't fired anyone. This angered some legislators.
Why hasn't someone been terminated?" asked state Senator Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville. The nurse just turned a deaf ear to this because she was tired of her.

Madison also complained at Cornell's lack of cooperation in the legislative investigation, noting that neither Cornell nor Youth Services Division gave her any details of their investigations. Instead, she got them from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Meanwhile, Cornell issued an apology for Brown's death. However, the apology was generally worded and did not admit any fault on Cornell's part. Cornell promised to review policies and staff actions at Alexander.
State investigators already determined that Alexander employees violated their own policies repeatedly in the days leading up to Brown's death.
On the day prior to and including LaKeishas' death, there was (sic) appropriate medical protocols in place," according to director of the Department of Health and Human Services Youth Services Division Kenneth Hales testifying before state legislators. However, we did not find documentation that could demonstrate to us that those protocols were adhered to. And that is our primary finding.

What did the angry state legislators do to punish Cornell for its callous disregard of Brown's life? Recommend extending Cornell's contract that was due to expire in 2008. After all, what is the life of a 17-year-old girl who was murdered by medical neglect when you have a juicy $9.5 million contract to award?

Sources: Associated Press; Arkansas Democrat-Gazette;

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