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Advanced Correctional Healthcare’s Business Model Blamed for Prisoner Deaths, Injuries

The business model of Advanced Correctional Healthcare, Inc. (ACH) includes “severe cost control measures” and reliance on the company’s insurance provider to cover liability verdicts that result from inadequate medical care, according to lawsuits filed by the estates of three pretrial detainees who died of easily treatable maladies at Alabama’s Madison County Jail.

The suits, filed by attorney Hank Sherrod in 2014, claim that Madison County Sheriff Blake Dorning, jail administrator Steve Morrison, jail medical director Dr. Arthur Williams and ACH’s CEO, Dr. Norman R. Johnson, are “part of an explicit or implicit agreement or plan to delay or deny necessary medical care to avoid having to pay for medical care.”

Morrison announced his resignation from the jail in December 2015, effective the following month. Each of the three prisoners who died suffered from typically non-life-threatening conditions that could have been cured with common treatments. Each case was egregious in its own right, but that of Deundez Woods, 19, exhibited extreme deliberate indifference.

Woods was arrested for shoplifting Star Wars DVDs and passing a counterfeit $100 bill. While incarcerated he developed a visible, gangrenous wound on his right foot that went untreated. As the infection worsened, “Woods went from normal, to aggressive and disruptive, to barely responsive, to all but dead as correctional medical staff watched,” the lawsuit filed by his estate alleges.

Woods was tased three times for being uncooperative and began lying naked on the floor of his cell. There was no record of him eating or drinking after being placed in a medical observation cell on August 6, 2013. “[J]ail records affirmatively show Woods did not eat from August 14-19 and that as of August 12 Woods’ water supply was cut off,” the lawsuit states.

“By August 17,” according to the complaint, “the odor was so bad [from the foot wound that] correction officers dragged Woods from his cell to the shower, sprayed him with water, and then placed him, still naked, in a different cell.... Still no correction officer or ACH nurse did anything to check Woods, let alone help him.”

On August 19, 2013 he was finally taken to a hospital where he died of a blood clot originating from his gangrenous foot. See: Woods v. Madison County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 5:14-cv-01964-KOB.

Another pretrial detainee, Tanish Jefferson, 30, died of a bowel obstruction at the Madison County Jail on October 31, 2013. She had made several requests for medical care and wrote in a grievance that she had been sick for 10 or 11 days and believed her life was in jeopardy.

A doctor “misrepresented her condition in his note” during an October 29 exam, then sent her back to her cell with laxatives despite Jefferson alerting him to “alarm symptoms.”

She was again returned to her cell after seeing a nurse on the morning of October 31, 2013. Even when she passed out at 8:40 p.m., she was not taken to a hospital immediately; she died shortly after an ambulance was called at 9:09 p.m. See: Jefferson v. Madison County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 5:14-cv-01959-AKK.

Madison County Jail prisoner Nikki Listau, 61, experienced seizures from alcohol withdrawal following her arrest on March 10, 2013. The next morning she was found “naked on the floor of her cell, rambling incoherently.”

Guards canceled her court appearance and put her back in bed. By 11:19 a.m. she was found unresponsive on her cell floor, and died at a hospital the next day. A civil rights action filed by Listau’s estate said an autopsy found she had suffered blunt force injuries including broken ribs and a broken femur. See: Elliott v. Madison County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 5:14-cv-01309-CLS.

The three lawsuits, which remain pending, are “being vigorously defended” according to Madison County’s attorney. But litigation and allegations of deliberate indifference at the Alabama jail are not ACH’s only problems. The company, which is based in Peoria, Illinois and provides medical services at 278 jails in 17 states, has been dogged by lawsuits and similar allegations of inadequate care in other jurisdictions where it does business.

Dante Tyreese Wilson, 38, died at the Rock County Jail in Wisconsin in August 2015 after complaining of extreme chest pains. “The jail nurse and correctional staff quickly arrived to begin medical assessment of this inmate and began performing lifesaving measures while awaiting the arrival of Janesville Fire Department paramedics,” stated a press release from the sheriff’s office.

However, according to a subsequent news report, Kim Beede, a nurse employed by ACH, initially decided that Wilson was experiencing heartburn and gave him Tums. When he requested medical care again, Beede reportedly said he should “relax”; she did not contact a doctor. Wilson died a short time later due to a heart attack. While Beede was fired, that didn’t help Wilson or console his family. Like thousands of other people held in jail, Wilson had been arrested for nonpayment of child support. [See this issue’s cover story]. 

Danny Ray Burden, 41, a diabetic, requested insulin when he was incarcerated at a jail in Grant County, Kentucky in April 2013, where medical care was provided by ACH. He didn’t receive it, a subsequent investigation found, and later died. Less than two months before Burden’s death, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had sent a letter to the county warning that “unqualified staff [were] serving as gatekeepers to medical care.” Burden had been jailed for failure to pay restitution for insurance fraud; his family filed suit against the county and ACH, and settled the case in March 2016 for $110,000 from the county and its insurer plus an undisclosed amount from ACH. See: Burden v. Grant County Fiscal Court, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ky.), Case No. 2:14-cv-00054-WOB-JGW.

In a statement, ACH CEO Dr. Norman Johnson criticized Burden’s brother, Mark Burden, for providing “downright false information” about the case, claiming that “ACH knows the real cause of his brother’s death, and we are prohibited from disclosing that information due to HIPAA privacy and confidentiality laws.”

ACH lost its contract at the Grant County Jail, which was ordered closed by county officials in July 2016 following a second letter from the DOJ that cited deficiencies at the facility.

In another case that fortunately did not result in a death, Timothy Strayer, then 70, entered the Dearborn County Detention Center (DCDC) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana in July 2011 to serve a one-year sentence for possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

Strayer suffered from several chronic medical conditions that included heart disease, psoriasis, acid reflux and the lack of one kidney.

Unfortunately for Strayer, Dearborn County had contracted its jail’s medical care to ACH in 2005. At the time ACH was hired, it projected cost savings to the county of at least $120,000 annually. The company would accomplish this, in part, by limiting doctor’s visits; ACH provided only one visit from a doctor at the jail per week. A jail administrator – with no medical training whatsoever – would go on to serve as the facility’s de facto primary medical care provider.

Not long into his stay at DCDC, Strayer’s health began to rapidly deteriorate. He complained of pressure on his chest, gastronomic distress, hernia problems, an ear infection and inflamed, persistent psoriasis.

Those problems were essentially ignored by jail and ACH staff until, in early August 2011, having lapsed into severe pain and delirium, Strayer was taken to the Dearborn County Hospital. It was there that medical personnel discovered he had developed severely perforated ulcers and his abdominal cavity had filled with excess air and fluids.

Following about ten days at the hospital, Strayer was discharged from DCDC on his own recognizance – effectively freeing both Dearborn County and ACH from further liability for the cost of his medical treatment.

Due to complications from his untreated medical needs while in DCDC under ACH’s care, Strayer remained in various hospitals, undergoing surgeries and treatment, for a total of 196 days. He amassed medical bills of $685,135.94. Strayer and his family subsequently filed a lawsuit against Dearborn County and ACH, which remains pending with a jury trial scheduled for December 5, 2016. See: Strayer v. Dearborn County Sheriff, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 4:12-cv-00098-RLY-TAB.

In May 2016, county commissioners in Boone County, Missouri approved a contract for ACH to provide medical care to prisoners at the county jail, at an annual cost of $592,000. Upon investigating the new contractor, the Columbia Tribune found that ACH was named as a defendant in 36 pending federal lawsuits nationwide, plus two in Missouri.

When asked by the Tribune whether the company’s litigation history gave him pause, Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey said “Not a concern in the least bit.” He even offered that he had advised a county commissioner the lawsuits were likely not so bad as they seemed, as “you’re not getting both sides of the story.”

One of ACH’s doctors who works at the Boone County Jail, Catherine Van Voorn, has been sued multiple times and was disciplined by the Missouri Board of Registration for the Healing Arts in 2009, for “[dispensing] drugs without labels, [faxing] prescriptions to pharmacies without her signature, [failing] to keep records of prescriptions and [allowing] a nurse to prescribe drugs.”

One of the lawsuits against Dr. Van Voorn was filed by Sentoria McMillon, previously incarcerated at the Cole County Jail in Missouri, who claimed she lost her unborn child in October 2015 due to inadequate medical care by ACH. According to McMillon, she experienced abdominal pain at the jail but did not see a doctor for more than a week, then was released the day before her appointment with a physician. She went to a hospital, which found her baby had died up to seven days earlier. Her suit is still pending. See: McMillon v. Cole County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mo.), Case No. 2:15-cv-04277-MJW.

Dr. Van Voorn and ACH were also sued following the death of Brian M. Sorensen, 61, at a jail in Clay County, Missouri in 2013. Sorensen’s complaints of stomach pain were reportedly treated with an antacid; he in fact had a duodenal ulcer and, according to a local news report, “was bleeding from the mouth and had no pulse” by the time EMS responders arrived at the jail.

ACH’s website states the company’s purpose is “to solve problems for our patients, clients, and staff, to make their lives easier.” Of course it’s hard to make patients’ lives easier if they die due to inadequate medical care.

As reported by the Columbia Tribune, the Boone County Sheriff’s Department’s contract with ACH is expected to save the county $100,000. The company began providing health care to prisoners at the Boone County Jail on June 1, 2016 – stay tuned for future reports of deaths, poor medical treatment and, of course, more lawsuits.


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Related legal cases

McMillon v. Cole County

Burden v. Grant County Fiscal Court

Strayer v. Dearborn County Sheriff

Woods v. Madison County

Jefferson v. Madison County

Elliott v. Madison County