The corporations that reap huge profits from our correctional system know the public doesn’t pay attention to what goes on behind prison walls. In fact, they bank on it.
Corizon Health Inc., one of the nation’s largest and most notorious providers of for-profit healthcare for inmates, including 4,000 at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail and Glenn Dyer Detention Facility, has a long record of cutting staffing levels and denying even basic care to its patients in order to boost its bottom line and secure lowest-bid contracts with state and county governments.
Corizon has faced scrutiny, investigation and censure throughout the country for its unethical and often illegal practices and has been sued more than 660 times for malpractice since 2008. In Idaho, a court-ordered report found Corizon’s failure to provide prisoners with necessary medical equipment “inhumane” and “cruel and unusual punishment.” In New York, the U.S. Department of Labor levied its highest level of censure against Corizon for workplace violence after inmate attacks against employees jumped 500 percent in two years.
As The New York Times wrote in 2005, investigators into deaths at prisons where Corizon provides health care services “kept discovering the same failings: medical staffs trimmed to the bone, doctors underqualified or out of reach, nurses doing tasks beyond their training, prescription drugs withheld, patient records unread, and employee misconduct unpunished.”
The same dismal drama is playing out right here at Santa Rita Jail and the Glenn Dyer Detention Facililty, where the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office contracts with Corizon for $32 million a year.
The question is, how does Corizon keep its costs low and its profit margin high, and what are the consequences, the human cost of that margin?
Every now and then the public gets a glimpse, as it did earlier this month when the family of Martin Harrison won an $8.3 million settlement with Corizon and Alameda County — the largest civil rights wrongful death settlement in California history.
Harrison was suffering from alcohol withdrawal after his arrest for jaywalking in Oakland, but Corizon failed to recognize his symptoms or provide the care this often fatal condition requires. After languishing in isolation for 14 hours, Harrison suffered delirium tremens, at which point 10 sheriff’s deputies entered his cell and beat and Tased him. Harrison died two days later.
“My father was a nice guy,” said Martin Harrison Jr. at an emotional press conference announcing the settlement. “He made one mistake and it cost him his life.”
The circumstances that led to the Harrison tragedy are commonplace within Santa Rita Jail. The sheriff’s own quality assurance officer, Dr. Calvin Benton, expressed “serious concerns about the care inmates receive” in a series of internal reports documenting a lack of personnel, inadequate care, improper dispensing of medication, failure to comply with accreditation standards, and withholding of necessary medical services. In the Harrison case, Corizon saved labor costs by violating legal staffing standards.
For more than a year, Corizon has refused to agree to contractual standards for care, safety and staffing demanded by its Bay Area healthcare workers. These are not only moral issues, but liability issues. Failure to provide proper healthcare for inmates and safe conditions for workers invites expensive litigation not only for Corizon but for Alameda County and its taxpayers. Unsustainable nurse-to-patient ratios not only lead to poor care but leave workers vulnerable to assault.
Equally alarming is that Corizon’s egregious neglect of its patients persists with little oversight from the public officials entrusted with our tax dollars. Though the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is responsible for monitoring Corizon, the county’s Civil Grand Jury found that they essentially rubber-stamp Sheriff Ahern’s recommendations to renew Corizon’s contract year after year and defer to his assessments of Corizon’s services. In other words, one man controls Alameda County’s largest contract without appropriate oversight or challenge.
Profit-minded cost-cutting combined with a lack of oversight have lead to neglect, malpractice and preventable deaths. We cannot continue to operate under the illusion that Corizon has at heart the best interests of Alameda County inmates, workers, or taxpayers. Corizon’s motives are clearly at odds with its mission.
Sal Rosselli is president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, a democratic, member-led union that represents more than 10,000 healthcare workers throughout California, including 160 Corizon workers at Santa Rita Jail and the Glenn Dyer Detention Facility. NUHW.org.