DC Mayor Wants To Turn Prison Health Care Over To Notorious Company Tied To Inmate Deaths

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A plan to privatize Washington, D.C.’s non-profit prison health care system was scuttled in December after D.C. Council members, former inmates and lawyers raised concerns about the corporation Corizon’s lengthy record of neglect and abuse of prisoners.

On Wednesday, the plan resurfaced.

Newly sworn-in Mayor Muriel Bowser resubmitted the contract to turn over the DC jail’s medical, mental health, dental and pharmacy services to Corizon for the next three years — proposing to pay them about $66 million to care for the more than 12,000 inmates who cycle through the jail each year. According to the city’s documents, this is about $4.4 million more than DC is currently paying the local non-profit Unity Health Care.

Once again, D.C. residents are rallying in opposition to the plan.

“We want people to have information about what a bad partner Corizon is,” said Deborah Golden with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who represented women inmates in Virginia who filed a class action lawsuit against Corizon last year. Golden told ThinkProgress the company denied care to some prisoners and provided inadequate care to others, resulting in suffering and death from untreated cancer and diabetes.

Golden said she believes this record is one of the reasons D.C.’s prison guards union came out in opposition to giving Corizon the new contract. “The officers don’t want to work in an environment where there are uncontrolled infections, where mental health care is problematic, where prisoners angry.”

Golden, who also represents several current and former inmates at the D.C. jail, said their need for quality health care is far greater than the general population, with high rates of HIV, cancer, diabetes and hypertension. With that in mind, she and others strongly oppose letting a private corporation take over.

“It’s not that [the non-profit] Unity is perfect,” she said. “But I think the DOJ’s report on Ferguson shined a light on the corrupting influence a profit motive can have on what happens in the criminal justice system.”

Lawsuits and investigations across the country have found that Corizon has repeatedly cut corners on its prison medical care. In Alabama, the company provided only one doctor for every 1,648 inmates, causing “delays, failures to diagnose and treat problems, failure to follow up with patients, errors and decisions to not treat seriously ill prisoners” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

At Rikers Island prison in New York, an investigation of Corizon’s services found their treatment, or lack thereof, “may have been a factor in at least 15 deaths over the past five years and that these deaths may have been preventable.”

The company recently won the dubious honor of the largest wrongful death settlement in California for putting an inmate in isolation who needed urgent medical care, leading to his death.

Citing these and many other accusations against Corizon, D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson wrote to the Mayor calling the contract a “significant liability risk for the District.”

Council member David Grosso went further, calling on the Mayor to rescind Corizon’s contract and instead re-open the process of selecting a healthcare provider.

“Corizon is a bad actor that needs to be put out of business. They’ve run ram-shod over the entire country,” Grosso told ThinkProgress. “Why would we bring them here? It’d be stupid.”

The Council has to vote to approve the Corizon contract within 45 days for it to go into effect. But with two empty seats on the Council — because one member died and the other became the new mayor — the issue will likely be pushed back until after the special election in mid-April to make sure the whole city is represented in this decision.

Grosso said he’s not opposed on principle to privatizing heath care at the jail, but expressed concerned over Corizon’s record of, in his words “cutting corners.”

“We do have for-profit hospitals that actually do a good job, and their stockholders know going in that they won’t get profit, profit, profit,” he said. “But this company is so bad that I am prepared to vote no. I don’t want their practices, their history, their type of care in my city.”