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Class-Action Suit Claiming Inadequate Medical Care at Virginia Prison Set for Trial

Class-Action Suit Claiming Inadequate Medical Care at Virginia Prison Set for Trial

A December 2014 trial date has been scheduled in a class-action federal lawsuit that could determine the future of health care for prisoners at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW) in Troy, Virginia.

The suit was filed in July 2012 on behalf of five women incarcerated at Fluvanna, and names as defendants the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), Armor Correctional Health Services and both VDOC and Armor officials for failing to provide constitutionally adequate medical care at FCCW. The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) in Charlottesville, Virginia; the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wiley Rein, LLP and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs are jointly representing the plaintiffs – Cynthia B. Scott, Bobinette D. Fearce, Patricia Knight, Marguerite Richardson and Rebecca L. Scott.

On July 15, 2013, the district court held that Corizon Health, Inc., of Brentwood, Tennessee, which was the contract provider for medical care in VDOC facilities prior to Armor, and which outbid Armor in May 2013 to resume its role as Virginia’s correctional health care provider, could be added as a defendant.

The suit does not seek monetary damages, but rather “declaratory and injunctive relief to address and remedy the failure of FCCW, on a systematic, pervasive, and on-going basis,” to provide constitutionally adequate medical care.

An LAJC press release said the quality of health care at FCCW is so deficient that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The women suffer extreme pain for prolonged periods as a result of the refusal to provide for these women who have no other options for securing life-saving medical care,” said LAJC litigation director Abigail Turner. “Some spend months confined to wheelchairs because medical staff fail to act promptly. Some have died. The human tragedy is almost all the pain and suffering could have been prevented.”

Turner blamed the VDOC’s outsourcing of prison health care to private companies as contributing to the problem. “The suffering stems directly from the policies and practices of a for-profit corporation that puts profits over people,” she said.

Turner added that she believes at least ten deaths at FCCW over the past 3 to 4 years could have been prevented had prisoners received sufficient medical treatment.

The complaint cites the failure of health care staff to treat the plaintiffs and other prisoners as examples of system-wide failures. As one example, the lawsuit describes the death of FCCW prisoner Darlene White, an acknowledged diabetic.

White went to the prison’s infirmary in the early morning hours of December 21, 2011, complaining of severe headache, nausea and diarrhea. A nurse gave her a shot to relieve her nausea and sent her back to her dorm. Later that day she returned to the infirmary. A nurse checked her blood sugar and “found that it was radically elevated above normal levels,” the suit claims. She was instructed to lie on a bed, where she remained for the next day vomiting and defecating on herself without receiving care or a medical exam. A nurse did try to administer an IV to White, who was “completely non-responsive,” shortly before she died.

A second example cited in the lawsuit involves prisoner Jeanna Wright. Beginning in 2011, Wright complained for months of intense abdominal pain and rectal bleeding, but “for at least one year,” medical staff at FCCW assured her that she was “fine.” Wright was finally taken to the University of Virginia (UVA) Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with Stage IV abdominal cancer. She died only a few weeks later.

The lawsuit cites numerous other examples intended to demonstrate the inadequate care that prisoners receive – or in some cases don’t receive. The LAJC claimed that despite having to pay a $5 co-pay for sick call visits, prisoners often wait several months to see a doctor or nurse practitioner to diagnose and treat their medical needs, and that the denial of access to doctors results in medical staff refusing to examine, diagnose and treat serious medical conditions.

The complaint further alleges that Armor’s medical staff have failed to provide the plaintiffs with timely referrals and treatment for specialized care such as degenerative disc disease, severe shortness of breath, recurring throat infections and sarcoidosis – a disease that causes inflammation in the body’s organs. Even when a specialist prescribes a specific course of treatment, Armor’s staff regularly refuse to carry it out.

The suit also contends that prisoners with chronic illnesses, such as hypertension, diabetes, incontinence, frequent constipation, arthritis and other mobility impairments, are deprived of care as their health deteriorates.

FCCW prisoner Taylor Gilmer, 23, is one such example. When Gilmer was seven years old, doctors diagnosed her with Type 1 diabetes; her mother said that since Gilmer has been incarcerated at FCCW, medical staff have been negligent in her treatment.

Her mother claimed that FCCW health care staff misidentified Gilmer’s Type 1 diabetes as Type 2, and prison officials prevented her from routinely checking her blood sugar levels.

“I’m really scared,” said her mom. “She cries to me on the phone ... she says ‘I’m losing my vision.’ She’s afraid she’s going to lose her feet.” She wonders what condition her daughter will be in when she is finally released in 2017. “How bad will she be by then, if she even lives? The outlook is not so good.”

Another FCCW prisoner was approved for medical clemency and released in early December 2013, after doctors at the UVA Medical Center gave her only weeks to live. Donna Kidd spent nearly ten years behind bars on charges of fraud and larceny, and suffered from hepatitis C when she was incarcerated. Barbara Kingery, her older sister, said Kidd’s health quickly deteriorated once she was in prison due to poor medical care.

“They are in there paying for their mistakes, but they shouldn’t have to pay with their life,” Kingery stated. “If she had gotten the proper treatment, she wouldn’t be where she is now.”

The VDOC defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was denied by the district court in December 2012. The suit alleges that medical care has been equally deficient under both Armor and Corizon, with Corizon underbidding its rival by around $17 million when the contract was rebid in 2013.

“Everything we’ve seen so far [indicates] more of the same from Corizon,” said LJAC attorney Brenda Castaneda. “I wish the care would be better, but that’s not what we’re hearing from our clients and it’s not what we anticipate based on past experiences.” She said LJAC had petitioned to add Corizon to the lawsuit so the court could order the company to provide adequate care in the future.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that their mission is to make money,” noted Hope Amezquita, an attorney with the ACLU of Virginia. “They’re a for-profit company. It may be cynical of me to say this, but you can’t make more money unless you cut services and treatment and staff.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they were left with no other option but to sue. “Each year prisoners at Fluvanna file hundreds of grievances recounting the failure to provide appropriate medical care,” said Deborah Golden, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “Yet, [VDOC] has not required [its outside provider] to adopt and improve medical care. By its actions and inactions, [VDOC] has shown deliberate indifference to plaintiffs’ serious medical problems and needs.”

In April 2014, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for $15,980 in attorney’s fees for having to file a motion to compel in a discovery dispute in the case, and on July 28, 2014, Corizon was dismissed from the suit upon agreement of the parties.

The company had announced its intention to withdraw from its $76.5 million contract with the VDOC effective October 1, 2014, citing costs as a factor. Armor will resume medical care in Virginia prisons at that time on an interim basis; as Corizon will no longer be subject to declaratory or injunctive relief, it was dismissed as a defendant.

A motion to certify a class in the case remains pending, and a jury trial is scheduled for December 1, 2014. See: Scott v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Va.), Case No. 3:12-cv-00036-NKM.



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Related legal case

Scott v. Clarke