by Matt Clarke
Corizon Health is one of the nation's largest for-profit medical providers for prisons and jails. Recent lawsuits against the company, however, call into question the quality, and even the availability, of the healthcare services it is supposed to provide. Further, a former New Mexico prison employee has filed a whistleblower suit claiming she was fired in retaliation for raising concerns about Corizon’s provision of medical care to prisoners in that state.
In April 2017, the former behavioral health chief for the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) filed a lawsuit after she was placed on administrative leave and then terminated in November 2015. Dr. Bianca McDermott claimed she was fired for “various whistleblower activities” related to the NMCD’s contract with Corizon.
McDermott said she began raising concerns with her supervisors about the company’s contract in 2009. “Dr. McDermott was personally aware that Corizon was not providing all mental health care required under the contract, which meant that some portion of the [$200 million] NMCD paid to Corizon had not been earned,” according to her complaint.
She filed a qui tam action, which allows a private party to sue for fraud against the government, and made several public records requests. The state Attorney General investigated her allegations, and McDermott claimed the NMCD took retaliatory actions against her.
Meanwhile, Corizon has faced multiple lawsuits nationwide that allege inadequate medical care similar to McDermott’s whistleblower claims.
On March 14, 2017, the daughter of Denise Gertrude Forte filed a lawsuit against Corizon and the Gwinnett County jail in Georgia. The suit claims Forte’s 2015 death could have been prevented with adequate medical care; the 53-year-old woman had been held at the jail for more than a year on drug charges.
Attorney Mark Begnaud said Forte had a history of lung disease and was ignored as her symptoms started getting worse. After Forte’s initial visit with a nurse, he noted, “they didn’t even bring her up to evaluate her. They simply told her ‘No. We won’t see you now. You’re on the list to be seen by a doctor this week.’” Forte died before that could happen, even though Begnaud said jail records indicated the medical director knew her condition was serious. See: Forte v. Corizon Health, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:17-cv-01096-SCJ.
A day before that suit was filed, on March 13, 2017, Raheen Dudley filed a lawsuit in federal court against Corizon and members of its medical staff at the Genesee County jail in Michigan. The complaint also named the county, alleging gross negligence and civil rights violations.
According to the suit, Dudley’s medical problems developed after being jailed in 2016. On September 14 of that year he submitted a request for health services to see a doctor regarding severe pain in his lower stomach. A second request followed two days later, and Dudley was seen by Corizon medical staff who refused to send him for emergency treatment. It wasn’t until September 19, following a third request, that he was finally sent to a hospital.
Dudley had surgery but by then his appendix had burst and he had to undergo bowel resection, which resulted in the removal of a piece of his colon and left him wearing a colostomy bag. He remains incarcerated, serving a 15-year sentence for a string of armed robberies. See: Dudley v. Genesee County, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:17-cv-10800-AJT-SDD.
On January 14, 2017, the father of a man who died at a New Mexico prison in 2015 sued Corizon, the NMCD and others, claiming his son was paralyzed from the waist down and ultimately died because prison officials ignored his pleas for medical care while at the same time allowing him to be sexually assaulted by a prison doctor.
Charles Bryant claimed in the suit that his son, Robert Bryant, filed multiple grievances beginning in 2011 after complaining of being sexually abused by the doctor, and later sought medical attention for worsening back pain, but his requests were ignored.
According to the complaint, Bryant, who was incarcerated at the Northeastern New Mexico Detention Facility, had ongoing spinal problems. In June 2014 he reported new and worsening pain that made it difficult for him to walk, stand or sit. The lawsuit alleged that Bryant’s condition was not properly diagnosed or treated, and by November 2014 he had become paralyzed from the waist down.
The following month he was finally taken to the emergency room at the University of New Mexico Hospital, where doctors discovered lesions on his spine and kidney, a possible old neck fracture and renal cell cancer that had spread to other parts of his body. Bryant, 48, died a month later. Numerous other lawsuits have been filed against the Corizon physician accused of sexually assaulting him, Dr. Mark E. Walden. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.56; Sept. 2013, p.47].
On November 30, 2016, the family of Madaline Pitkin filed a $20 million suit against Corizon and Washington County, Oregon. Pitkin, who was 29, was arrested in April 2014 on suspicion of unlawful possession of heroin and booked into jail.
From April 19 to 23, Pitkin submitted four written requests for medical care because heroin withdrawal caused her to vomit and experience other symptoms. She twice wrote that she felt like she was near death.
An investigation by the Oregonian found medical staff at the jail mostly discounted or mishandled Pitkin’s pleas; they repeatedly ranked her withdrawal symptoms as mild, and Corizon nurses failed to track her low blood pressure.
Pitkin died in her jail cell on April 24, 2014. No doctor was on duty, since the physician had been fired the previous day. An autopsy determined her cause of death was chronic intravenous drug use and the manner of death was listed as natural.
Washington County has since cut ties with Corizon Health. But in a November 2015 statement, Sheriff Pat Garrett called Pitkin’s death a tragedy and said he was “shocked and dismayed to learn of Corizon’s apparent lack of response to her written requests for medical help.”
An investigation found no criminal wrongdoing, he said, so the District Attorney’s office declined to file charges. But the sheriff did find “several very troubling issues with the care Ms. Pitkin received.” He said the county may join Pitkin’s parents in their suit against Corizon. See: Pitkin v. Corizon Health, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:16-cv-02235-AA.
On July 7, 2016, Arizona Department of Corrections prisoner Eric Carlson filed a legal claim against Corizon and the DOC seeking $1.5 million in damages. According to the claim, Carlson’s wrist was crushed in April 2016 while he was working at a prison recycling center. Instead of being taken to a hospital, he was returned to the prison in Florence and did not see a medical provider for six days despite X-rays that showed he had broken bones.
The claim also alleged Carlson was given a makeshift splint made of cardboard that had been fished out of a trash can and did not receive sufficient pain medication.
“Because [the wrist] was not set properly, because it wasn’t taken care of right away like it should’ve been, the bones in his hand died,” said Carlson’s attorney, Scott Zwillinger. “He’s going to be permanently impaired in his right hand, and he’s right-handed.” See: Carlson v. Corizon Health, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:17-cv-01490-DLR-JZB.
Additionally, on June 29, 2016, Angelo James Fricano filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Corizon and Lane County, Oregon, claiming he was denied necessary psychiatric care for 15 days while incarcerated in the county jail. Corizon provided health care at the facility between 2012 and 2015.
Fricano was a vendor at the Oregon Country Fair when he was arrested on June 29, 2014 for threatening another vendor with a baseball bat. Although he had neither a criminal nor mental health history, he had been displaying unusual behavior for several days prior to his arrest. According to court documents he had an adverse reaction to prescription medication.
Fricano was booked into the Lane County jail under a mental health hold. Due to the hold, he should have been immediately taken to a hospital for examination; instead, he was placed in an isolation cell for over two weeks before being moved to the psychiatric unit of a hospital.
The hospital determined he had been experiencing an adverse reaction and the criminal charges against him were dismissed. But Fricano allegedly lost 20 pounds while going without regular food, water, a mattress or his medications during his time in isolation. He was also pepper sprayed after a scuffle with jailers, and claimed he suffered from depression and PTSD caused by his incarceration. He is seeking $3 million in damages. See: Fricano v. Lane County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 6:16-cv-01339-MC.
Just before Fricano’s lawsuit was filed, on June 27, 2016, Ezekiel Verdugo, 32, filed a tort notice in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Verdugo had been incarcerated at the Dona Ana County Detention Center for over nine months when he began to experience “severe abdominal pains” around the beginning of April 2016. Corizon nursing staff diagnosed him with constipation and administered a treatment that was “very painful,” according to Verdugo.
The pain worsened to the point that he could not stand up. Once, he fell to the floor and was mocked by a guard. About a week after his first complaint, jail medical staff diagnosed him as having kidney stones. The next day he was flown by air ambulance to a hospital which made the correct diagnosis of sepsis caused by a ruptured appendix.
Verdugo spent seven weeks in a rehabilitation center before being returned to the jail. He still had a “gaping hole in his abdomen” that required a dressing change twice daily, which was not always done. He also allegedly did not receive adequate pain medication while at the jail, which contracted with Corizon for medical care.
Aided by attorney Peter Goodman, Verdugo filed a claim with the county stating the jail, its nurses and guards “were at least negligent in their diagnosis and treatment of him and, had he seen a doctor sooner, his appendix could have been operated on in a safe and routine manner, before it ruptured.” He also claimed mental anguish and permanent injuries.
In May 2015, opioid withdrawal caused Tyler Tabor, 25, to become violently ill while he was incarcerated at the Adams County jail in Colorado. He died of dehydration despite reportedly begging jail staff for an IV. His family filed a wrongful death suit against the county and Corizon, which provided health care at the facility. The lawsuit, which was filed on June 22, 2016, alleged Corizon should have treated Tabor’s dehydration with IV fluids. See: Tabor v. Adams County, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:16-cv-01587-MSK-MJW.
On May 20, 2016, former Chatham County jail prisoner Eddie Prince Robinson, 59, aided by attorney Will Claiborne, filed suit against the county’s sheriff and Corizon, which provided health care at the Georgia jail at the time.
Robinson alleged he informed jail officials that he required regular medication in the form of eye drops when he was arrested for a parole violation. It took ten days for him to receive any eye drops, and the full amount was not provided. By May 2015 he was blind in his right eye and had not received necessary eye surgery prior to his release on July 6, 2015.
Robinson’s lawsuit accused the sheriff of delegating medical decisions to Corizon despite knowing that other detainees had suffered from the company’s deliberate indifference to their serious medical needs.
Another Chatham County jail prisoner, Mathew Ajibade, 21, died hours after he was arrested on January 1, 2015. He had struggled with deputies, been strapped into a restraint chair with an anti-spit mask placed over his face, then shocked four times with a Taser while restrained. An autopsy concluded he had been “stressed to death.” [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.28].
His parents said Ajibade was having a manic episode after failing to take his medication for bipolar disorder. They filed a wrongful death suit against Corizon, the sheriff, a jail nurse and twelve deputies on March 30, 2016. See: Ajibade v. Harris, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ga.), Case No. 4:16-cv-00082-WTM-GRS.
The details of Ajibade’s death were revealed during a criminal trial against two deputies and a jail nurse. All three were acquitted of manslaughter, but Jason Kenny, the deputy who shocked Ajibade with a Taser, was convicted of cruelty to an inmate. Deputy Maxine Evans was convicted of falsifying records while Corizon nurse Gregory Brown was convicted of lying to investigators. Kenny was sentenced to a month in jail, which he was allowed to serve on weekends. Evans and Brown received probation. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.63].
On February 24, 2016, the mother of Mario Martinez filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Corizon, Alameda County and its Sheriff, Greg Ahern. Martinez, 29, suffered an asthma attack, collapsed and died in a common area of a jail in Santa Rita, California. For months, he had been complaining of nasal polyps that were making it difficult to breathe. Despite multiple court orders that he be treated for the polyps, Corizon failed to correct the condition. See: Martinez v. Corizon Health, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:16-cv-00881-JSW.
The suit alleges that the county and Sheriff Ahern had been aware of past poor performance by Corizon, which in 2015 had paid $8.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of prisoner Martin Harrison, who died at the jail. Martinez’s mother also organized a campaign against the renewal of Corizon’s contract and questioned whether Ahern’s receipt of a campaign contribution of over $100,000 from Corizon represented a conflict of interest. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.58; Feb. 2017, p.30].
Adding to Corizon’s legal woes, on May 28, 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted en banc rehearing and set aside a prior panel opinion affirming the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the estate of an Indiana prisoner who died at the Plainfield Correctional Facility. The appellate court called into question the panel’s finding that Corizon’s failure to implement a Department of Correction directive requiring a centralized care plan did not constitute deliberate indifference to Nicholas Glisson’s ultimately fatal laryngeal cancer and renal failure. The lawsuit alleged Corizon had failed to provide adequate medical treatment.
A dissenting judge on the original panel wrote that “a rational jury could find that Corizon deliberately structured the delivery of medical care in a way that lacked critical oversight. The policy in Glisson’s case had predictable fatal results.”
On February 21, 2017, the en banc Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of the case, finding the plaintiff – Glisson’s mother – had “presented enough evidence of disputed, material issues of fact to proceed to trial” against Corizon and other defendants. See: Glisson v. Ind. Dep’t of Corr., 849 F.3d 372 (7th Cir. 2017), petition for cert. filed.
Around 150 lawsuits have been filed against Corizon by New Mexico prisoners since 2007. In a Santa Fe New Mexican series, reporter Phaedra Haywood described delayed care that resulted in medical conditions worsening, becoming chronic and resulting in lifetime disabilities. She also noted there was little oversight over the medical services delivered by Corizon and few penalties when they were found to be inadequate.
“The state Auditor’s Office repeated findings five years in a row that [the DOC was] not verifying what Corizon was delivering,” Haywood said. “I think one of the quotes from their reports was: If Corizon said there’s three nurses on the floor, they took their word for it, they don’t go out and verify that there were three nurses there that day.”
“There have been thousands of lawsuits” filed against Corizon, added Maria Morris, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who has researched the way the company operates in a number of states, finding a disturbing pattern.
“If there’s any way to avoid [doing so], they don’t send people out to specialists in the community,” Morris stated. She added Corizon has a record of employing staff who aren’t qualified for the jobs they’re performing.
Chatham County, Georgia decided not to renew its contract with Corizon when it expired on July 31, 2016, after the sheriff was critical of the company’s track record and requested changes in the jail’s medical care contract. Corizon also lost its $156 million contract to provide medical and pharmacy services in New Mexico’s state prison system as of the end of May 2016. And most recently, effective March 31, 2017, the for-profit health care provider lost its contract to continue providing medical, mental health and dental services to Indiana state prisoners, which was worth almost $300 million. The loss of the Indiana DOC contract led Corizon to announce 699 layoffs.
These developments continued the trend of the company losing multiple prison and jail contracts, including its contract to provide medical care at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.20].
Perhaps, if Corizon focused on providing competent and adequate care to prisoners, it would not be the subject of so many lawsuits and at risk of losing its lucrative contracts.
Sources: www.registerguard.com, Las Cruces Sun-News, www.abc15.com, www.9news.com, www.savannahnow.com, www.theindianalawyer.com, www.kunm.org, www.johnburrislaw.com, www.startribune.com, Associated Press, Albuquerque Journal, www.mlive.com, www.wabe.org, The Oregonian, Detroit Metro Times, Santa Fe New Mexican, Nashville Post
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