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Corizon, CCA Settle Lawsuit Over Solitary Confinement of Elderly Woman

Corizon Health and for-profit prison firm Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) have settled a lawsuit over the solitary confinement of a then-70-year-old prisoner following an alleged false positive drug test caused by Zantac, a heartburn medication.

Carol Lester, a former New Mexico state prisoner and a grandmother, filed a federal civil rights action after she was placed in solitary confinement for over a month at the New Mexico Woman’s Correctional Facility operated by CCA (now known as CoreCivic). Medical care at the prison was provided by Corizon.

Lester suffered from several serious ailments, including bipolar disorder, thyroid cancer and hypertension. While incarcerated she received several medications, including Zantac. After she lost consciousness in a sally port, prison medical staff told her she might have a life-threatening heart condition; however, she was not taken to a hospital or scheduled to see a cardiologist.

Lester and her family became concerned and began to advocate for better medical treatment for her and other prisoners. Lester also encouraged other prisoners to complain about inadequate health care, which allegedly angered prison officials.

As a result of those advocacy efforts, a delegation of state lawmakers visited the facility and spoke with Lester and other prisoners regarding the provision of medical and mental health care. Later, the head of health services for the New Mexico Department of Corrections, which contracted with Corizon, also spoke with Lester and other prisoners. Soon after that visit Lester was required to take a urinalysis-based drug test, which was positive for methamphetamine.

Due to the drug test results, Lester was placed in solitary confinement and convicted of a disciplinary offense. Zantac is known to cause false positives on drug screens, but Lester was not allowed to introduce evidence to that effect during the disciplinary proceedings. She appealed her conviction.

After 34 days in solitary, during which Lester claimed did not receive her medications properly and suffered mental deterioration, the disciplinary charge was dropped and she was returned to the general population. With the assistance of Albuquerque attorney Matthew E. Coyte, Lester filed a federal civil rights complaint against CCA, Corizon and several of their employees, alleging retaliation and due process violations as well as pendent state torts. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.22].

Corizon and its health services administrator opted to settle the case first, while Lester’s claims against CCA and the company’s employees were settled in September 2015. Both settlement agreements were confidential.

“There was never an acceptable ration­ale to put a 70-year-old woman in solitary, regardless of Carol’s situation,” said Coyte, noting that people with bipolar disorder are especially vulnerable to segregation and likely to deteriorate. “It makes no sense to have these people in solitary. It’s toxic. It’s inhumane. It’s mental torture,” he added. See: Lester v. Hickson, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 1:13-cv-01118-JB-LAM.

Additional source: KRQE

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Related legal case

Lester v. Hickson