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Prisoner Deaths, Labor Conflicts Precipitate Loss of CA County Corizon Contract

In August 2016, the Alameda County, California Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to end its ties with Corizon Health, Inc., and awarded a contract for county jail medical services to California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG).

The contract, worth $135 million over a three-year period, was issued to CFMG over the protestations of Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern. As reported by local news outlet KTVU, Ahem had received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Corizon.

Corizon and Prison Health Services (which merged with Correctional Medical Services to form Corizon in 2011) had been contracted to provide medical care at two Alameda County jails since 1988. Precipitating the loss of the Alameda County contract were complaints of poor medical services, claims of negligent prisoner deaths and labor conflicts.

In 2010, the family of an Alameda County prisoner, Martin Harrison, allegedly the victim of inadequate medical care, received an $8.3 million settlement from Corizon and the county. According to the attorney representing Harrison’s family, the settlement was the largest of its kind in California history. [See: PLN, March 2015, p.54].

In a December 2, 2013 letter to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Dr. Calvin Benton of Oakland, California wrote that a prisoner with obstructive sleep apnea almost died as a result of being denied an easily-obtained CPAP machine while in custody. The prisoner, who suffered from respiratory failure, pneumonia and sepsis, had to be taken to a local hospital by ambulance. Dr. Benton noted that CPAP machines generally rent for approximately $100 per month.

In July 2015 another Alameda County jail prisoner, Mario Martinez, 29, suffered an asthma attack and died. He had been complaining of obstructive nasal polyps and had obtained multiple court orders directing Corizon to treat his condition. In February 2016, Martinez’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Corizon and Sheriff Ahern, which remains pending. See: Martinez v. Corizon Health, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:16-cv-00881-JSW.

 In 2015, hundreds of nurses who worked for Corizon in Alameda County’s jail system threatened to go on strike, citing staff shortages that forced them to handle excessively high numbers of incarcerated patients. Following the Harrison settlement, the company laid off 67 licensed vocational nurses.

“Since then they hired a bunch of temporary workers, but people would come in, work two days, and say, ‘This is crazy, I quit,’” said National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) organizer Dennis Dugan. “They couldn’t retain people.”

Those conditions, according to the nurses, compromised their ability to deliver proper medical care. A notice of the impending strike, required under the nurses’ labor contract, was served on Corizon, and after unsuccessful negotiations for a new contract a federal mediator issued a “cooling off” period to try to spark an agreement.

As stated by NUHW president Sal Rosselli, “The staffing situation in the jail is in crisis right now. [Registered nurses] are responsible for giving medications to over 100 patients a day, at a time when Corizon’s profits are unprecedented. It’s time for Corizon to make less of a profit.”

 Corizon’s own records indicated that it had been sued over a hundred times for medical negligence, due to inadequate care that resulted in unnecessary suffering and deaths. Millions of dollars were paid in settlements by the company, which, according to NUHW, “prioritizes its bottom line over the welfare of inmates by aggressively cutting staffing levels, withholding care from inmates, retaliating against whistleblowers, and denying adequate pay and benefits to caregivers.”

NUHW made that statement in a letter to the Washington, D.C. City Council, which was considering contracting with Corizon to provide medical care in the District of Columbia’s jail system. The Council ultimately rejected the contract. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.20].

Regardless, the reality of medical care for Alameda County jail prisoners will likely remain a bleak one; CFMG, like its competitor Corizon, has a history of litigation based on complaints of deficient medical care. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.1].

Sources: Think Progress; letter to the DC Council by Sal Rosselli, President, NUWH (April 10, 2015);;;

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Related legal case

Martinez v. Corizon Health