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Medical Provider Blamed for Deaths at New York Jail Replaced by Another Contractor ... Then Another

by Joe Watson

For three years, elected officials in Niagara County, New York refused to give the families of Tommie Lee Jones and Daniel Pantera the satisfaction of terminating the county jail’s contract with for-profit healthcare provider Armor Correctional Health Services.

Instead Armor left on its own terms, refusing a new deal with the county when local officials denied the Florida-based company’s demands for more money and negotiated a new contract with a different for-profit medical provider.

“There is no firing. They don’t want it anymore,” said Niagara County Attorney Claude A. Joerg, referring to the jail’s healthcare contract. “It’s not a response to the report from the state.”

The report to which Joerg referred was released in 2014 by New York’s Commission of Correction and blamed the December 2012 deaths of Jones, 51, and Pantera, 46 – both just two weeks after Armor entered into a three-year contract with the county – on Dr. Steven C. Gasiewicz, the company’s medical director at the Niagara County Jail. The report found the pair of deaths were due to “grossly inadequate medical and mental health care,” and recommended that the county consider severing its relationship with Armor.

Pantera, who reportedly suffered from mental illness and had been arrested for shoplifting a cup of coffee at a local 7-Eleven, died of hypothermia on Christmas Day inside a cold cell in the jail’s solitary confinement unit. There were also reports that staff did little to prevent him from stripping himself naked or from running directly into the walls of the cell, knocking himself unconscious at one point.

“He was sick when he came in,” said attorney James VanDette, who filed a wrongful death suit against Armor, Dr. Gasiewicz and the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of Pantera’s widow. “The jail and the medical unit really failed this guy. He had a medical condition, and the jail knew or should have known about it. That’s the main issue of the case.”

Dr. Gasiewicz denied any wrongdoing in response to the lawsuit.

Jones, who was being held at the jail on a parole violation, died four days after Pantera, on December 29, 2012, of untreated heart failure and emphysema.

The Buffalo News received a six-page letter from other prisoners at the jail following Jones’ death, claiming that he “literally begged the staff, both correctional and medical, to take him to the hospital.” The day before he died, the prisoners wrote, Jones’ “condition had visibly worsened, but jail staff acted as if they did not see the dying man.”

Armor settled a wrongful death suit in July 2014, agreeing to pay Jones’ daughter $100,000. That same year, in October, another prisoner died at the jail while under the company’s care.

On October 31, 2015, Correctional Medical Care, based in Pennsylvania, took over healthcare at the Niagara County Jail, beginning a three-year contract worth $2.18 million annually. Armor had sought a contract worth nearly $2.5 million per year, which would have been an increase of more than $423,000 annually over its previous contract.

However, Correctional Medical Care decided to cut ties with the county less than a year into its contract after unsuccessfully seeking a pay increase to $2.55 million, and in July 2016 Niagara County officials decided to contract with yet another for-profit healthcare provider, PrimeCare Medical.

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed suit against Armor in July 2016 following over a dozen prisoner deaths at the Nassau County Correctional Center, claiming the company had provided inadequate medical care and underperformed many of its contractual obligations. That lawsuit, which settled in October 2016, will be reported in a future issue of PLN.