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Scabies Outbreak at Michigan Women’s Prison Under Corizon Health

by Ed Lyon 

Scabies is the name for an infestation of tiny mites that burrow under a person’s skin and cause an itchy rash. They are spread by touching an infected person or an item of the person’s clothing or bedding. Crowded conditions, like those one normally encounters in prisons and jails, are highly conducive to the spread of the mites. With these facts in mind, it seems reasonable that medical staff who work with prisoners would be trained to identify and treat scabies. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) contracts with Corizon Health, a for-profit company, under a five-year, $715.7 million contract to provide medical services at state prisons.

Prisoner Rebecca Smith at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHVCF) contracted an unidentified skin rash in October 2017. 

She learned to clip her fingernails short enough so she would be unable to scratch. “It itches like anything – it’s like the worst mosquito bite,” she said. 

Corizon’s staff were able to diagnose a scabies outbreak that, by early 2019, had spread to hundreds of the 2,000-plus prisoners at the facility, all of whom had to be treated. 

Dr. Walter Barkey, a private practi­tioner with Pinnacle Dermatology, become aware of the situation at WHVCF when a friend whose daughter was incarcerated at the prison asked him to get involved. 

In December 2018, as prison officials were blaming prisoners for the rash, supposedly because they were either improperly mixing cleaning solutions and/or laundering their own clothes, Dr. Barkey began contacting authorities in an effort to provide assistance. He said he would not accept any payment and would provide his own equipment. He even contacted the Detroit Free Press several times to be interviewed about his offer to help.

Dr. Barkey was finally granted access to WHVCF. Lugging his own microscope, he took skin scrapings from some of the prisoners, prepared slides and quickly identified the problem as a scabies outbreak – a feat Corizon had not been able to accomplish. In fact, prison staff had ruled out scabies during initial tests in early 2018.

“You don’t go into medicine unless you want to help people,” Dr. Barkey stated.

WHVCF closed for visitors in mid-January 2019 to treat the affected prisoners, at an estimated cost of $80,000 to $90,000. The MDOC quickly took credit for “bringing in” an outside dermatologist to diagnose the problem, a claim they just as quickly had to walk back. 

Martha Harbin, a Corizon spokesperson, claimed to be working on a response regarding the scabies outbreak, but no comment was forthcoming. In February 2019, news articles reported that Michigan officials had fined Corizon $1.6 million for contract violations over the prior two-and-a-half years. The fines were for failing to provide timely medical care for both routine and chronic care appointments, among other issues.

Scabies outbreaks have occurred at a number of correctional facilities nationwide, including an extensive outbreak in 2017 at a jail in Nashville, Tennessee run by CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America. [See: PLN, Mar. 2018, p.58]. 



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