Justice

The Shady For-Profit Company Poised To Take Over DC Prison Healthcare (Updated)

CREDIT: AP Photo/California Department of Corrections

Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California State Prison in Los Angeles.

The DC City Council was scheduled to voted Wednesday on a three to five-year contract for the notorious prison healthcare company Corizon to operate at the DC Jail and Correctional Treatment Facility. The contract would give the company jurisdiction over the medical care of the more than 10,000 DC residents that cycle through the jail every year.

Several former prisoners, including DC native Victor Carter, have been organizing against Corizon’s bid, phone-banking and lobbying City Council to reject the contract. Carter, who was incarcerated for 18 months at the DC jail, told ThinkProgress he was moved to speak out based on his own experience with inadequate care.

“On several occasions, I told them I was having stomach pains, and they kept sending me back to my room,” he said. “It got to the point where I was bent over and I couldn’t walk. I had blood in my urine and throwing up blood. After like the fifth day, when they finally saw me, I ended up in surgery and had my gall bladder removed.”

Though he described the current healthcare system, which is run by the non-profit clinic operator Unity, as “not up to par,” he and other advocates say Corizon would be much worse for DC. “For them, it’s all about revenue, it’s not about helping people,” Carter said. “I mean, it’s on the stock market! They make money off of us being incarcerated! So, I can’t sit back and let this go on. Some justice has to be done. Even though you’re an inmate, you still have rights.”

The largest private prison healthcare company in the country, Corizon has come under fire for neglecting and abusing inmates in Minnesota, Virginia, Florida, New York, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland and, most recently, Arizona.

In a class action lawsuit this year on behalf of tens of thousands of inmates, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona documented many instances of abuse and neglect by Corizon in Arizona prisons. The suit eventually forced the state to agree to some reforms, though they have yet to fund and implement them. A major piece of that settlement will allow inmates’ attorneys to monitor the care Corizon provides them.

A review of the “gross systemic deficiencies” in Corizon’s work in Arizona presented to the court during the lawsuit concluded: “All prisoners in this system are at risk of serious harm and/or death, because the system as a whole is not equipped to provide them with necessary medical care when they experience serious medical needs.” The medical expert concluded that Corizon’s system was “fundamentally broken and among the worst prison health care systems I have encountered.”

In an email to ThinkProgress, Corizon spokesperson Susan Morgenstern insisted these deadly conditions “existed prior to Corizon’s involvement.” She added that the company believes it would be the best option for DC “based on Corizon Health’s technical expertise, pricing for our evidence-based clinical programs and services, and the outstanding 35-year track record of the company.”

But Executive Director Alessandra Soler of the ACLU of Arizona, which brought the class action lawsuit, strongly disagreed. “They’re a profit-making provider, and they’re getting rich while people are dying behind bars,” she told ThinkProgress. “They have a perverse incentive not to treat people. We’ve documented examples of extreme delays in medical care, terrible facilities, and cases where they’ve provided no care at all. It’s a perfect example of why DC shouldn’t be following that same path.”

In the mid-1990s, the DC jail’s private healthcare system had such an egregious record of suicides, HIV infections and tuberculosis, that courts ordered an outside take over.

Another DC native and returning citizen, Daryl Jerome Smith, was incarcerated from 1988 until this year. He is paralyzed from the waist down and incontinent, and currently uses a wheelchair held together in several places with knotted string. Speaking to ThinkProgress at the office of University Legal Services, where he and his cousin were phone-banking in opposition to the Corizon contract, he described the poor quality of medical care in the days before Unity.

“It was pitiful,” he said. “I was getting bedsores and I wasn’t getting no treatment or nothing. I would sign up for sick call and I had to wait like two or three weeks for an appointment. They talked to you like a kid, and if you responded like a man they put you in the hole or wrote you up.”

Following the receivership period, the non-profit clinic operator Unity was brought in, and they have provided healthcare for inmates for the past 8 years. Though serious problems persisted, especially in the realm of mental health care.

Deborah Golden, an attorney with the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, told ThinkProgress that while there are serious problems, privatization is the wrong response.

“Unity could improve, but I don’t see Corizon as an improvement,” she said. “At least with Unity, they’re here in DC, and in my experience they’re always open to hearing from advocates about what needs to be fixed and are willing to address problems.”

Tammy Seltzer, the director of the DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project at University Legal Services, agreed, adding that Unity’s many clinics for low-income residents around DC give them a better perspective on prison health as public health.

“When people need services when they come out [of jail], they get linked right up to a community clinic. There’s this continuity of care. I’ve had at least one woman say to me that she had a health problem discovered while she was in the correctional treatment facility, and when she was released they told her to go to Unity. She said, ‘When I got there they knew exactly what I was talking about, they had access to all the tests I had while I was at the jail.'”

Seltzer said such “seamless care” inside and outside of jail is especially crucial for reducing communicable diseases–like HIV or tuberculosis.

While she and other prisoner rights advocates say the concept of for-profit healthcare is “inappropriate” in general, they point to Corizon’s abysmal record is her main motivation for mobilizing against the vote.

The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the corrections officers at the DC jail, has also come out against Corizon’s contract bid. In a public statement, Sergeant JR Rosser said on behalf of the union: “How many times are we at Corrections going to experiment with money-makers before we realize that profit and public safety do not work? Once again, we are looking at a bottom line instead of service delivery.”

Over the past few years, as investigations have uncovered preventable deaths at Corizon facilities, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee have all ended their contracts with the company and switched to other prison health care providers.

UPDATE

On Tuesday night, DC Mayor Vince Gray withdrew the proposed contract for Corizon, citing a lack of support among City Council members, who had received a barrage of phone calls from advocates and residents, and letters to the editor from prominent Washingtonians. However, Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser could resubmit the contract when she takes office next month.

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