More Issues With Private Medical Care in Prison

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.”

The article notes that Wellpath’s “contract is currently up for renewal” even as the company faces a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of a man who passed away from an infection he contracted while being held in a prison where Wellpath was responsible for his care. According to MPB, the man was initially seen by prison dentists for what appeared to be a toothache. When antibiotics did little to ease his pain he was then seen by two nurses who discovered a golf ball-size mass on his throat, indicating swollen lymph nodes. Despite this, the prisoner was never permitted to see a doctor, even as he reported having trouble breathing. Other inmates even tried to intervene with the prison authorities on his behalf, as did a junior medical assistant. Sadly, he was eventually found, unresponsive, in his cell.

An attorney for the man’s family cited “instances of lack of communication, lack of documentation, lack of coordination of care, staffing issues which all sort of culminated when his state became critical and required emergency care.” The family has filed a wrongful death suit.

The important thing to understand about cases like these is that they are civil rights issues. Wellpath and companies like it often put profits ahead of the health and well-being of the men and women they are supposed to care for. But the problem is even bigger than that. Private companies are only involved in prison/jail administration and health care because governments have given them contracts to do so. As private prisons and privately-run prison services have come under more scrutiny in recent years it has become clear that many cities, counties and states are shirking their duty to protect the people under their care.

We are currently representing a family in a case against Yamhill County and Wellpath.  It has become clear that there is complete institutional dysfunction between the two organizations.  The more we dig into the case, we expose how both the jail and especially Wellpath, were deliberately indifferent to the medical needs of a person whose life they were responsible for.

As a lawyer practicing in both Oregon and Washington I have worked hard to help families hold both Wellpath and its government employers to account.  Folks that are incarcerated, by definition, have little or no choice when it comes to the healthcare they receive. That makes it especially critical that our tax dollars be used in ways that uphold the rights we all enjoy as Americans.


Maine Public Broadcasting: ‘It’s Horrible’ – Report Alleges Improper Care by Private Health Provider in Maine State Prison

Cornell University Legal Information Institute: 42 USC 1983 Estelle v Gamble (429 US 97 (1976))

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