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Georgia: Doctors and Nurses Warn Prison Medical Care is in Jeopardy

by David M. Reutter

As previously reported in PLN, a 2017 investigation found the 1,326-bed Augusta State Medical Prison (ASMP), operated by Georgia Correctional Health Care (GCHC) under a $190 million annual contract for the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC), had “a myriad of unsafe and unsanitary conditions.” State officials vowed a cleanup of the 36-year-old prison and put new leadership in place, including a new warden and hospital administrator. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.15]. Two years later, however, staffing problems had only worsened.

Former ASMP nurse Jackie Mitchell quit in July 2019 after she was forced to work shifts caring for dozens of patients who should have had two or three nurses tending to them, she said. Some diabetic patients had dangerously high glucose levels after nurses were instructed to reduce the frequency of their medications, she added.

“It’s sad because the patients aren’t getting the care they need,” Mitchell said.

The same week that she quit, so did two other ASMP nurses. GCHC’s report for the week of July 3, 2019 noted that the prison was “now looking at no supervisor” – creating a “critical situation” that was “setting up staff and patients for further increasingly dangerous encounters.”

“I foresee significant liability risks to GCHC if there is not some sort of dramatic action taken,” Dr. Mark Taylor wrote in an email to the risk management department at Augusta University, which operates GCHC. “[T]he main issue is the current administration’s inability to retain staff, and the mass departure of long-term staff,” he added.

The prison has 95 acute-care hospital beds, another 40 beds for nursing care plus 20 long-term care beds, and 15 beds for pre- and post-operation patients. The staffing shortage is “resulting in increased risk of mistakes and delayed care,” Dr. Taylor said, pointing to wound care that regularly sent prisoners “back to their dorms without getting their dressings changed because the nurse is busy caring for acute illness/injury patients.”

Just one week after Taylor sent his email, GCHC health services administrator Connie Melchert put him on administrative leave, accusing him of improperly handling an incident report about an alleged sexual assault – something Taylor said he was never given instruction on how to do.

Health Henley, director of news and information at Augusta University, said Dr. Taylor’s disciplinary action was under review, adding that staffing issues at ASMP were being addressed through a combination of pay hikes, recruiting drives and the use of contracted nursing services. His boss, Augusta University Vice President for Communications and Marketing Jack Evans, said much the same thing after the 2017 investigation. In any event, Taylor noted that salaries are not the problem.

“[T]he truth is, people are willing to come here for the subpar salaries, but are turning around and leaving due to feeling disrespected, unappreciated, and under constant threat of being reprimanded by the administration for any of an ever growing list of possible infractions,” he wrote in his email. “[Medical Director Dr. Mary Sheryl] Alston and Ms. Melchert together have created a very punitive environment where the employees seem to feel more like an inmate than the actual inmates.”

Ellen Taylor, who is no relation to Dr. Taylor, agreed. The 50-year-old former Army nurse noted critical delays in getting dressings changed for wounded patients due to the staffing shortage, and said a dialysis patient died in July 2019 from lack of treatment. In her resignation letter that same month, Taylor criticized ASMP officials for failing to follow “nursing or even GDC mandatory standards and requirements,” and for “blaming staff conveniently instead of taking responsibility for adverse decisions.”

“People’s lives are at stake. They can’t go somewhere else for health care,” she said. “The various actions are affecting the quality of patient care offered at this facility, along with smearing the [GCHC] brand. I wanted them to know it was starting to be a danger to my license, that patients were suffering, and that I had no intention of coming back because of it.”

Dr. Timothy Young was the source of anonymous statements during the 2017 investigation of ASMP, which were published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and revealed mold, grime, insects and piles of trash that created a breeding ground for infection at the facility, along with security lapses that had nurses fearing for their safety.

Young’s superiors suspected him of making the statements, and made his already “deplorable” working conditions even worse, he said, forcing him to resign. In November 2018, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging those in charge “knew or should have known” that their conduct violated “established free speech by fellow professionals, as well as the Georgia Whistleblower Act.”

The problems at the medical prison are not new, but they are costly. After 19-year-old Jimmy Lucero starved to death at ASMP in 2015, his mother filed a $550,000 wrongful death suit, which GCHC settled for a confidential sum in 2019. And the previous year, the state paid over $3 million to settle five lawsuits involving two former GCHC doctors. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.44].

“This is unsafe and not practical even for a prison setting,” observed former nurse Mitchell. “The prison used to be a great place to work and now it’s more like a slave plantation with one master.” 


Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Augusta Chronicle

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