By Justin DeFreitas

Jail health care services desperately need county oversight

Corizon, the notorious for-profit corporation that has been investigated and censured for the health care it provides — or doesn’t provide — to inmates at prisons across the nation, abruptly laid off 49 licensed vocational nurses (LVN) on Jan. 1 at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin and the Glenn Dyer Detention Facility in Oakland.

The move threw the facilities’ health care services into chaos and put the health of Alameda County inmates at risk. Remaining staff are scrambling to meet inmates’ medical needs with far less time and far fewer resources, and the strain is showing.

Santa Rita Jail is almost decimated. The remaining nurses are burned out and exhausted. They’ve been forced to work double shifts repeatedly since the layoffs were implemented, and are even bringing in supplies from home, since Corizon has failed to provide adequate equipment.

Who ensures this giant corporation, which takes in more than $30 million a year from Alameda County taxpayers, fulfills its legal and ethical obligations to provide competent medical care?

Unfortunately, Corizon is not subject to oversight or inspection by the regulators who oversee hospitals and nursing homes. Nor is such oversight apparently being provided by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which hired Corizon, or the Board of Supervisors, which has allowed Corizon’s contract to renew year after year since 2011 without going up for bid.

It’s time for our elected county officials to step up and provide meaningful oversight of Corizon. Outsourcing jail health care services to a corporation does not relieve county officials or taxpayers of the moral responsibility for the wellbeing of our inmate population.

When medical staff are forced to work long hours at an unsustainable pace, mistakes are bound to happen — and mistakes can have tragic consequences.

Corizon has had more than its share of “mistakes.” These reckless, dangerous mass-layoffs are just the latest, and the irony is that the layoffs are actually Corizon’s botched attempt to make up for a previous mistake — one that cost a man his life, cost his family a loving father and cost Alameda County taxpayers millions of dollars.

In the largest civil rights wrongful death settlement in California history, Corizon and Alameda County settled a lawsuit in February 2015 for $8.3 million with the adult children of Martin Harrison, a 49-year-old Oakland man who was Tased and beaten unconscious by 10 sheriff’s deputies at Santa Rita Jail in 2010. Corizon had been using LVNs to do intake medical assessments, which state law requires be performed by RNs or physicians, an illegal tactic that saved Corizon about 35 percent in labor costs.

Corizon assigned an LVN to do an intake assessment that should have resulted in Harrison, who had been arrested for jaywalking, being put on alcohol withdrawal protocols that would have allowed him to safely detoxify. Instead, he was given no medical follow-up and, two days later, went into delirium tremens, severe alcohol withdrawal that is often fatal.

Harrison was placed in isolation. Fourteen hours later, a deputy entered Harrison’s cell, found him in a distressed state, Tased him twice and called for backup, claiming that Harrison was attacking him. Nine deputies arrived and beat, kicked, and Tased Harrison into unconsciousness. He died two days later.

Under the terms of the injunction stemming from the case, Corizon had until the end of 2015 to implement major changes in how it staffs Santa Rita. But rather than use that 10 months to affect a smooth transition that would have properly divided the work among LVNs and RNs according to their scope of practice, Corizon abruptly dismissed 49 of its 67 LVNs — 40 percent of its total nursing staff — and plans to dismiss the rest as soon as state labor law allows.

By laying off dedicated and experienced LVNs, Corizon has sacrificed hundreds of years of combined experience and institutional knowledge and unnecessarily put inmates at risk for weeks, even months.

“The point of the [Harrison settlement] was for California jail inmates to receive better — not worse — care, so that what happened to Martin Harrison would not happen to any other jail inmate under Corizon’s care,” Julia Sherwin of Haddad & Sherwin, the Oakland civil rights law firm representing the Harrison family, told the Contra Costa Times.

Alameda County taxpayers should be outraged at the irresponsible, profit-driven healthcare Corizon is providing with their dollars and in their name.

Blaire Behrens worked as a licensed vocational nurse for 24 years at Glenn Dyer Detention Facility.

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