Articles Posted in Civil Rights

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I have repeatedly highlighted the fact that contracting out prison services to private companies often leads to tragic results. This is especially true when medical services are among the key government responsibilities put out for bidding.

Case law at both the federal and state levels is clear: when the government takes away someone’s freedom it also assumes responsibility for their well-being. Prisoners may not be a popular constituency among politicians, but that does absolve government of its legal and moral duty to offer adequate care for the people it locks up.

The latest example of this trend can be found in Maine. A recent article on the website of Maine Public Broadcasting outlines a lawsuit brought by “the NAACP’s Maine State Prison chapter… raising allegations of inadequate prison healthcare services. In a report that details the stories of anonymous residents, they allege that heart conditions, infections, diabetes and other serious conditions are being neglected or misdiagnosed by prison healthcare provider, Wellpath LLC.”

I have used this space more than once to focus on healthcare and prisons, with a particular emphasis on Wellpath. The Tennessee-based company touts itself as “the premier provider of localized, high-quality compassionate care to vulnerable patients in challenging clinical environments.” In plain English, that means they are a for-profit company that provides medical care in jails and prisons nationwide.

As I noted in a post last October, Wellpath is frequently sued for being deliberately indifferent to their patient/inmate’s constitutional right to adequate medical care. A California newspaper reported last year that since 2003 Wellpath has been sued “at least 1,395 times in federal court.” Wrongful death actions figured prominently in this tally.

Recent news from both the east and west coasts has highlighted WellPath’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. That news also raises, yet again, questions about whether the company does everything it should to care for the people placed in its charge.

A California newspaper’s investigation of deaths in county jails is shining a light on the issue of both for-profit prisons and outsourced prison healthcare. An investigation by the Redding Record-Searchlight found that “from 2005 to 2019, about 1,960 people died in the custody of California county jails.” Even granted the state’s immense size this is a shocking figure, one that highlights the importance of civil rights laws protecting even an unpopular group such as prisoners.

The figures compiled by the Record-Searchlight work out to roughly 130 jail deaths per year. Last year an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting put the 2018 figure for Oregon and Washington combined at 39, and noted that jail deaths have been trending upwards over the last decade. When you adjust for population (about 12 million for our two states versus just under 40 million for California) the overall mortality rate is similar.

I have written about jail deaths here in Oregon before. Both here and in the Record-Searchlight’s reporting one name keeps turning up. Wellpath is a Tennessee-based company which describes itself as “the premier provider of localized, high-quality, compassionate care to vulnerable patients in challenging clinical environments.” In ordinary English that means they are a private, for-profit, health-care company that specializes in offering care for prisoners. The newspaper quotes a psychologist who consults on prison staff training and prison conditions saying that for-profit companies like Wellpath do “an absolutely awful job.”

Last week the retired sheriff of Norfolk, Virginia was arrested and charged with numerous counts of bribery, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper reports Robert McCabe is accused “of taking cash, a loan, travel, gifts and campaign contributions from contractors providing food and medical care at the city jail” over the course nearly a quarter-century as the county’s chief law enforcement officer.

Along with the former sheriff, the founder of a Tennessee company that is part of the private prison and prison services industry was also arrested. The Post reports the Norfolk contract for prison medical services “was worth more than $3 million a year” and the company in question, Correct Care Solutions (now known as Wellpath), “continues to provide medical care at the Norfolk jail.” In exchange for the bribes the sheriff allegedly negotiated with Correct Care’s founder outside normal channels “and instructed employees to give his company inside information on potential contracts, including confidential bids from competitors”

This case caught my eye for two reasons. First, it is yet another example of what is wrong with our system of contracting prison management out to private corporations. Prisons are an unpleasant part of life, but they are also a public trust. It is essential that they be run in both a humane and accountable way, something that is fundamentally at odds with placing management or essential services – such as medical care – in the hands of companies primarily interested in making profits.

An incident in Colorado, recently recounted by The Oregonian, offers striking insight into the culture of neglect in our prisons and the important role our courts must play in ensuring justice is done.

On the night of July 31, 2018, the newspaper reports, an inmate at a county jail in Denver “gave birth to her son alone in her cell without medical supervision or treatment, despite repeatedly telling the jail’s staff that she was having contractions, according to a federal lawsuit.” The paper reports that the entire incident was “captured on surveillance video.” Yet, astonishingly, “an internal investigation by the Denver Sheriff’s Department cleared its deputies of wrongdoing.”

To call this appalling is an understatement. As I noted in a blog last March, an 8-1 Supreme court ruling dating all the way back to 1976 (Estelle v Gamble) clearly established the right of prisoners to adequate medical care. The court wrote that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” falls under the constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The series begins with several examples of prison and jail deaths, followed by a stark statistic: “Since 2008, at least 306 people across the Northwest have died after being taken to a county jail.” Over the course of a three-part investigation published last week Oregon Public Broadcasting, working in cooperation with other public media outlets in Oregon and Washington, offered a detailed, and disturbing, look at the state of health care available to people jailed here in the Pacific Northwest.

Notably, the death statistic does not come from an official source. As OPB reports, “until now, that number was unknown, in part because Oregon and Washington have not comprehensively tracked those deaths in county jails.” In other words: it took a media investigation to determine the extent of the problem, one that OPB calls “a crisis of rising death rates in overburdened jails that have been set up to fail the inmates they are tasked with keeping safe.”

OPB reports that suicide is “by far the leading cause of jail deaths in the Pacific Northwest, (accounting) for nearly half of all cases with a known cause of death.” Yet the issues the series raises concerning negligence and indifference on the part of jail staff are also significant. The series offers a number of examples of inmates who died after being served food to which they were allergic, or whose complaints about serious medical issues were ignored.

A lengthy article recently published in The New Yorker is shining a light on the extraordinary extent to which private companies have taken over health care in prisons. It is a trend that has grown quietly – and largely out of sight – over the last several decades, combining many of the worst elements of both our dysfunctional national health care system and the morally and legally ambiguous trend toward privately-run, for-profit, prisons.

The article details numerous cases in which private companies are alleged to have provided inadequate care whether through neglect or inadequate staffing and concludes: “Taken as a whole, evidence from cases across the country suggests that four decades of policy failures in both health care and criminal justice reform have left a largely neglected population vulnerable and, at times, at risk, and that for-profit companies, which were promoted as a solution, have instead become an integral part of a troubled system.”

Because prisoners represent a population with which many people have little sympathy, it is important to note here that cities, states and the federal government have a legal obligation to care for the people they lock up. “The standard of care that incarcerated people have a right to receive was established in the landmark case of Estelle v Gamble in 1976,” the magazine notes. In that case the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” violates the constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” As the article goes on to note, “Estelle also spawned a wave of civil-rights litigation seeking to enforce the Eighth Amendment protection,” a process which, over time, caused the standard of required care to become more precisely defined.

A recent article in The Oregonian outlined what has become a depressingly common story: the abrupt disappearance of Saudi Arabian students facing criminal charges here in Oregon. The newspaper reports that it “has found criminal cases involving at least five Saudi nationals who vanished before they faced trial or completed their jail sentence in Oregon.”

The suspects “include two accused rapists, a pair of hit-and-run drivers and one man with child porn on his computer.” A 2014 case detailed by the newspaper fits the pattern: shortly after the man’s arrest a Saudi diplomat appeared at the local district attorney’s office to post bail for the accused student. Having made bail and been released the defendant later failed to appear for his trial. As the newspaper puts it, the “cases raise new questions about the role the Saudi government may have played in assisting its citizens fleeing prosecution in Oregon – or possibly elsewhere in the United States.”

Any conduct along those lines would be a serious violation of diplomatic norms. Questions like that lie outside the scope of this blog, but there are other issues raised by these cases that are of immediate concern to us here.

This week The Oregonian carried the extraordinary story of a man who “was arraigned on 34 charges for allegedly recording colleagues at the Banana Republic Factory Store” on NE Cascades Parkway near the Portland airport. The 34-year-old allegedly placed hidden cameras in the women’s restroom at the store and recorded video of dozens of partially naked women, including children.

What is especially shocking is the revelation that the man had faced similar allegations at his previous job as a pharmacist with Kaiser Permanente. Last month the suspect “was arraigned on 71 similar charges for allegedly recording 51 men and women using the unisex bathrooms and changing rooms at the Kaiser Permanente facility” on Portland’s Northeast 138thAvenue. The man was fired after another employee “found a camera” in one of the bathrooms.

The article notes that some of the employees from the Banana Republic store are considering a civil suit. Two areas bear particularly close examination. First, there is the question of whether the Banana Republic store did everything it could to prevent this man, or anyone else, from invading employees’ privacy by installing secret cameras in the restroom. We need to know more about the nature of the cameras, where they were positioned, how they operated and how long they were in place. Most importantly, we need to consider what the store could have done to prevent this and other forms of employee misconduct. The U.S. Department of Labor’s website on workplace health and safety (see link below) lays out the standards all employers are expected to uphold. Difficult questions clearly need to be asked about how the store managed to get itself into this position in the first place.

A recent investigation by The Oregonian found “that county employees had received reports of serious neglect or abuse” at what the newspaper describes as the city’s “premier mental health facility,” the Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Northeast Portland. These reports began to come in “within months of its opening in 2017.” In 16 cases “a police report should have been filed but none was found.”

This scandal fits a wider pattern that I have been writing about for several years. In day care centers, prisons and, now, mental health facilities people who have a legal obligation to watch for abuse are failing to do so. As I noted in a blog more than a year ago, laws that we often think of as focused on child abuse are, in fact, designed to protect vulnerable people more generally. Section 419B.005 of Oregon’s legal code sets standards for care and extends these to all forms of abuse and neglect. This state statute compliments 42 USC 1983, part of the federal legal code. Together, they make protection from abuse a civil right.

It offers little reassurance that once the cases were uncovered a spokesman for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office told The Oregonian “thankfully that number (16) is relatively low compared to what we fear we may find.”

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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