by David M. Reutter
Three lawsuits, filed in June and July 2017, allege corrections officials ignored an outbreak of scabies at the Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility (MDCDF) in Nashville, Tennessee. Affecting 89 prisoners, the outbreak also spread to at least 17 members of the jail staff and 16 courthouse workers and attorneys. The facility’s private operator eventually paid for scabies treatment for 55 county employees.
With 1,348 beds, MDCDF is operated under a five-year, $100 million contract by CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a company headquartered in the affluent Nashville suburb of Green Hills.
Scabies, a skin infestation caused by parasitic mites, is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact and exposure to clothes and bedding. It typically results in rashes and intense itching, and is treated with prescription ointments strong enough to kill not only the mites but also their eggs.
A lawsuit related to the scabies outbreak was filed by four courthouse employees and lawyers in June 2017. Another claim was filed in July 2017 by 17 CoreCivic employees at MDCDF, and a suit on behalf of 39 female detainees was filed the same month.
The detainees’ lawsuit states that some of the women who suffered scabies while held at the jail began experiencing rashes in January 2017, though Metro Health Department spokesman Brian Todd said it wasn’t until May 2017 that his agency became aware of the outbreak. The condition spread in June 2017 to another nearby jail facility that houses male prisoners. All the prisoners were treated as a precaution against further spreading the infestation. According to Todd, the scabies outbreak was considered contained in September 2017 after two six-week incubation cycles passed without additional infections being reported.
The lawsuits filed by the detainees and employees claim that CoreCivic not only refused to acknowledge and address the problem with proper treatment, but also used intimidation tactics in an attempt to conceal the scabies outbreak at MDCDF.
“[CoreCivic guards] began threatening plaintiff and other inmates that if they mentioned the word ‘scabies,’ complained about it, or filed a grievance, they would be placed in solitary confinement,” the prisoners said in their complaint.
And according to the employees’ suit, “those that notified [CoreCivic], sought treatment, or filed Workers’ Compensation claims have been retaliated against, including having baseless written reprimands placed in their personnel files.”
A CoreCivic spokesman said only that they were “following all protocols and guidelines to mitigate the issue.” According to an August 2017 news report, the workers’ compensation claims filed by the company’s employees were denied.
CoreCivic presented Metro-Davidson County with a check for $14,797.71 in August 2017 to cover medical treatment for the scabies infections of 55 county employees – though CoreCivic General Counsel and Vice President Scott Irwin stressed to Metro Law Director Jon Cooper that the payment was “an act of goodwill” and “not to be construed as an admission in any way.”
The prisoners’ lawsuit claims that CoreCivic staff responded to their complaints about skin rashes with over-the-counter treatments. That’s when they “attempted to inform their family members about the scabies infestation over the phone and asked their families to research scabies on their behalf. Because [CoreCivic] monitors all phone calls, those inmates immediately had their phone privileges revoked, in retaliation for attempting to bring light to the epidemic.”
Pretrial detainee Jennifer King reported scabies symptoms in January 2017. She did not see a doctor until February. Treatment was denied by the doctor “pursuant to [CoreCivic’s] official policy, custom, and practice of ignoring requests for medical attention,” the lawsuit states. Four months later, King was moved to another housing unit despite being “covered from head to toe with the visible rash.” Soon thereafter, other prisoners in the unit began showing symptoms.
As the outbreak spread and complaints rose, CoreCivic conducted an inspection of female detainees on May 10, 2017. The company said it did not find scabies, suspecting it was a fungal infection or heat rash. A doctor told one prisoner that her rash was “caused by mold in their living quarters.”
The problem was finally exposed in mid-May 2017 when a public defender, a prosecutor, a court officer and four probation workers were diagnosed with scabies. In all, 16 attorneys and courthouse employees went to a local health clinic for treatment. A murder trial had to be postponed after a lawyer was quarantined for scabies.
The suit filed by courthouse staff alleges that in failing to warn them of the danger caused by the scabies outbreak, CoreCivic showed “reckless disregard for the health and safety of the public at large.” It was filed by attorney Gary Blackburn, whose wife serves as a judge at the courthouse. In a letter to the Metro Health Department, he documented 20 instances of CoreCivic’s “failure to provide medications and medical treatment to inmates” – which he characterized as “systematic and with intention.”
Other critics have called for an end to the company’s contract to operate MDCDF.
“They knew about a rash for a long time and downplayed it, minimizing it, and dismissed people who were suffering as out of hand complainers,” said Public Defender Dawn Deaner at a Metro Council committee meeting. “I do not trust that they can properly oversee and control what this is.”
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons echoed that sentiment and pointed to CoreCivic’s failures in other jurisdictions, under the company’s former name.
“As you are well aware, this is only the latest incident in a consistent pattern of alleged failures and negligent conduct by CCA with respect to the provision of appropriate safety and health services at CCA facilities nationwide, including the Metro Detention Facility,” he said in a letter to council members and the mayor, requesting that they take a “more comprehensive look at the contract and Metro’s long-term relationship with CCA.”
Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall – himself a former CCA employee – said there will be a “serious effort” to end the company’s contract to run MDCDF when it ends in 2020.
The pending lawsuits related to the scabies outbreak include Snead v. CoreCivic, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00949 and Doe v. CoreCivic, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00958.
Sources: Tennessean, www.nashvillescene.com, www.wkrn.com, www.nashvillepost.com, www.newschannel5.com
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Related legal cases
Snead v. CoreCivic
|U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00949
Doe v. CoreCivic
|U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00958