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$500,000 Settlement From Psychiatrist for Failing to Treat New Mexico Prisoner Who Committed Suicide

In November 2019, the family of a New Mexico prisoner who committed suicide while incarcerated at a privately operated prison agreed to a $500,000 settlement against the psychiatrist, Andrew Kowalkowski, who subcontracted with Corizon. Earlier in 2019, the family entered into confidential settlements with the two other defendants in the lawsuit — GEO Group and Corizon.

Michael Mattis, 24, pleaded no contest to residential burglary and entered the New Mexico Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2014. He had no prior criminal history but a known history of mental illness.

After he arrived at the Northeastern New Mexico Detention Facility near Clayton, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychotic disorder. According to court documents, psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Kowalkowski had a single video interaction with Mattis, then directed prison staff to closely monitor him, but prescribed him to be taken off of any form of medication.

Later that month, Mattis was transferred to the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa. There, prison staff put Mattis in a cell behind a staircase where he could not be closely monitored. Over the ensuing months, his mental health deteriorated.

Kowalkowski scheduled two additional video sessions, but Mattis refused to attend, according to the family’s complaint. The complaint alleged that the psychiatrist knew Mattis “was experiencing acute symptoms of mental illness” but did not alert prison staff.

A staff member at the GEO Group-operated prison recommended Mattis be transferred to alternative housing because of his mental illness. Instead, Deputy Warden Phil Aragon, a GEO employee, recommended continued isolation.

The next month, Mattis was scheduled to be transferred to a DOC-run mental health center, but the transfer was canceled at the last minute. The next morning, he was found “hanging by the neck with a strip of his bed sheets,” the complaint said.

Aided by attorney Matt Coyte, the family filed a lawsuit against GEO Group, Corizon, and Kowalkowski. During discovery, Coyte learned that Kowalkowski had been delivering psychiatric services via video conferencing. The records showed that he was billing multiple providers in different states for simultaneous sessions allegedly held with prisoners in different states.

The investigation into Kowalkowski’s questionable billing practices followed a deposition of former DOC Behavioral Health Bureau Chief Bianca McDermott. She stated that she had complained that doctors in Corizon’s telepsychiatry program were not spending enough time with patients.

In 2017, McDermott filed a Whistleblower Protection Act complaint against the DOC, alleging it retaliated against her for raising the issue. An internal report used in McDermott’s case said, “Corizon personnel absolutely knew they were free to do anything without fear of consequences.”

Kowalkowski continued to work with DOC prisoners after the DOC replaced Corizon with Centurion in 2016 because he subcontracted with both companies. In 2019, the DOC awarded its prisoner health-care contract to Wexford Health Sources, which said it would not retain Kowalkowski.

“It’s a practical reality of the way the system is set up,” said Coyte. “The incentive is to have lower medical care bills. The state doesn’t monitor the quality of care. The private company doesn’t monitor the subcontractors it hires ... and everybody ends up happy except for the prisoners who are going without care.” See: Marquez v. GEO Group et al., U.S.D.C. (New Mexico), Case No. 1:2016-cv-01259. 

 

Related legal case

Marquez v. GEO Group et al.