Hundreds of nurses who work for the for-profit prison health care company Corizon in Alameda County, California are threatening to go on strike if the company refuses to put enough nurses on duty and give them enough resources to adequately care for the thousands of men incarcerated there, especially after inmates have died on the company’s watch.
ThinkProgress spoke this week to one of the jail nurses, who we will identify by the pseudonym Clara because she fears losing her job. Clara, who works as a Registered Nurse at the jail, described abysmal conditions including broken or dirty equipment, rushed procedures and severe understaffing.
For example, when inmates are first booked, nurses examine them and ask them about their full medical history. Clara said Corizon’s procedures in this phase, designed to save time and money, puts everyone at risk.
“The patients come in right off the street. They’re often under the influence of drugs. You don’t know what their mental state is,” she said. “They’ve got three nurses seeing three inmates at once in one little cramped room, maybe 15 by 15 feet. So there’s no confidentiality. One inmate is sitting so close he could touch the next one, and we’re asking them very personal questions, like if they’re HIV positive. HIPAA [privacy] laws are totally violated there.”
In a statement to ThinkProgress, Corizon asserted they “meet [their] staffing obligations” in Alameda and are “very proud of the skilled and compassionate staff” who work in these facilities. “While we are not at liberty to discuss ongoing negotiations, we can assure you we are working closely with our union partners, and share a common goal of providing quality healthcare to patients,” the Corizon Health statement said.
Clara explained that Corizon keeps the medical team constantly short-staffed, so that a single nurse is in charge of more than 20 “acute” patients at once, all of whom “need to be monitored very closely.”
“At any other hospital, we’d be caring for five at the most, but here it’s sometimes 23 patients and one nurse. It’s unsafe,” she said. “Our inmate population is getting older and older and we have a lot of people with hypertension and diabetes, a lot of dental issues, seizure disorders. And, of course, the drug and alcohol issues that people come in with. Right now we’re so severely short-staffed that normally we have a pool of people to call if someone calls off sick, but we’re now using those people as full staff. When someone calls off sick, we have no pool to call from.”
Clara said one consequence of not having enough nurses on the cell block floor comes every morning with the distribution of medication.
“We’re supposed to give medication to the inmates by 8 a.m., but sometimes they get them as late as 11 a.m., and inmates aren’t getting seen in a timely manner.”
Many lawsuits against Corizon from across the country are related to delays in getting proper medication or medical treatment. Though Clara says she’s never seen any intentional abuse like that alleged in a recent investigation in Fresno County, California, she said giving nurses and nurse practitioners the resources they need would make them better able to care for their inmate patients.
The negotiation between Corizon and the National Union of Healthcare Workers has dragged on for nearly a year, stuck in disagreements over the high cost of health insurance for nurses, and low staffing levels leading to unsafe conditions for medical staff and jail inmates alike. Hanging over the tense situation is a growing cloud of lawsuits filed against Corizon for abuse, neglect and the wrongful death of those in their care.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers filed a strike notice last December, but a federal mediator asked for “cooling off period” to allow both sides to come to the table. Months later, little has progressed, and nurses are once again circulating a petition in support of a possible strike. Within the next week, if the members vote in favor, they will submit the petition to the county sheriff and Board of Supervisors to alert them of their decision.
As of now, the union reports “almost 100 percent support” for a strike. The nurses hopes this will pressure Corizon to meet their demands.
“Nurses never want to strike, but this is such an extreme situation that they’re willing to that draw attention to bad provider,” union president Sal Rosselli told ThinkProgress. “The staffing situation in the jail is in crisis right now. RNs are responsible for giving medications to more than 100 patients a day, at a time when Corizon’s profits are unprecedented. It’s time for Corizon to make less of a profit.”