Jail is hemorrhaging medical staff, doesn’t have a doctor, court documents show

Bernalillo County farmed out jail medical care to a corporation with a long history of lawsuits alleging abuse and neglect in NM and beyond

By: - January 10, 2022 6:00 am

A screenshot from a Metropolitan Detention Center recruitment video published in January 2020.

Attorneys representing inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County say even after the jail hired a new medical provider, the same old patterns of unconstitutionally bad health care continue.

Last fall, the Tennessee-based company Corizon Health promised more health care staff at MDC, and as county officials signed a $64.8 million contract with the company, they said they hoped it would ease strain on guards

This story is the second part in a series. Find the third tomorrow at sourcenm.com

But according to interviews with two former jail employees and court documents filed at the tail end of 2021, that’s not what’s been happening since Corizon took over in mid-October.

Instead, attorneys say there hasn’t been a medical director or an on-site physician, and more and more nurses are resigning, leaving a skeleton crew, especially at night. 

A leaked email from a psychiatric nurse who resigned in early December warns that the medical and psychiatric staff shortage — compounded by a lack of correctional officers — is a “recipe for disaster.” 

That situation is the subject of the Dec. 29 filing by lawyers representing inmates in McClendon v. Albuquerque, a decades-old class-action case about conditions at the largest jail in the state. They are asking the court to quickly hold a hearing about what they say is systemic inadequacy in medical care there.

The longtime staff shortage reached a crisis point that is putting inmates in danger, said Alexandra Freedman Smith, one of the lawyers representing the inmates.

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Her clients are locked in their cells for days at a time with MDC staff only checking on them once per hour, she said, making it impossible for them to take showers, call their families, or even get to court proceedings.

In November, a man was beaten to death by a cellmate because there were not enough jail guards to supervise them, and there was no one to answer the calls for help from other inmates as he was killed, Freedman Smith said. Calls for help in medical emergencies, including seizures, have also gone unanswered, she added.

“There simply aren’t enough staff to adequately supervise the inmates at that jail,” she said.

The previous medical provider, Centurion Detention Health Services LLC, prematurely ended its contract with the county in June 2021. County Manager Julie Morgas Baca told the Associated Press that the county government asked Centurion to address concerns about inmates dying on their watch, but the company just pulled out of the contract instead.

No comment so far

Corizon did not return our request for comment before press time.

As of Wednesday afternoon, county spokesperson Tia Bland had not responded to a detailed list of questions.

County Manager Morgas Baca said Thursday that officials needed more time to respond, because they had just learned about a ransomware attack on the county government on Wednesday morning. She said she plans to meet with Corizon officials on Jan. 11.

“Of course, we have concerns, too, and we want our staff, and we want the inmates to be safe and to be in a secure facility,” she said.

We will update this story with more from the county as we receive it.

One nurse for 1,200 people

On a daily basis, MDC has about 1,200 incarcerated people inside, the attorneys wrote, with many suffering from mental or physical health issues, including life-threatening illnesses and conditions.

Incoming inmates aren’t screened correctly when they’re entering the jail, according to a former worker who spoke with Source New Mexico on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Corizon. Along with some work shifts having a single nurse covering both detox and psychiatric care — or with no detox nurse at all — that means people suffering from substance use disorders do not get the right detox treatment, the worker said. That can be deadly. 

“They’re saying, ‘You need to do detox and the psychiatric area.’ But then you’re not doing a good job in either one,” the ex-employee said.

A lack of medical staff also means inmates with other conditions — heart problems or diabetes, for instance — do not get their medications administered on time, according to the former staffer.

Inmates often have wounds that, if left untreated, could turn septic and fatal. But at one point over the holidays, the worker said, the jail didn’t do its daily wound clinic for a week because there was no wound care nurse to run it.

Source New Mexico also corroborated these allegations with another MDC staff member who left because of poor working conditions and who also requested anonymity because the staffer is not authorized to discuss company policies or practices.

Nurses have to cover multiple assignments at MDC due to a severe shortage, according to court documents and both former employees. 

Often, one nurse is asked to take on the duties of several critical positions that must be staffed for the jail’s medical system to function, even during graveyard shifts, they said.

Attorneys learned that sometime in the last couple of weeks, there was only one nurse on staff to oversee the entire facility for her shift. A second nurse arrived later, they wrote.

“We only have one full-time nurse practitioner who’s been taking the brunt of all of this going on, especially with the COVID numbers rising and everything like that,” said the first former worker. “They’re taking the brunt of it.”

Sometimes, Corizon is putting nurses who are underqualified into critical positions and leadership roles, both former employees said, and that puts the inmates in danger but also threatens the nurses’ medical licenses.

History of abuse and neglect

Hundreds of prisoners sued Corizon over its medical practices in New Mexico prisons. The company was eventually fired by the Department of Corrections.

The Santa Fe New Mexican published a series in 2016 looking into whether state officials were ignoring warning signs or were doing an inadequate job overseeing Corizon. Prisoners were sexually abused by a doctor Corizon hired, according to inmates who filed lawsuits saying they experienced dangerous mistreatment and neglect while Corizon was in charge of health care inside N.M. prisons.

But that didn’t stop Bernalillo County from hiring Corizon to provide medical services in its jail.

County commissioners unanimously voted in September to award the company a four-year, $64.8 million contract.

None of the commissioners had yet returned requests for comment about whether the company’s medical care complies with the contract or the law before press time. We will update this story if we hear back from them.

Commissioner Adriann Barboa told the other commissioners at the meeting in September that at that point in the year, 10 people had died in the jail.

Before the vote, Barboa said she was thankful that the contract called for an increase in medical staff, a phlebotomist to ease stress on the nurses, an addiction treatment specialist, and seven full-time medical staff who could monitor patients.

Barboa also brought up the fact that local media outlets sued to obtain settlement agreements between Corizon and state prisoners related to medical malpractice by the company. Corizon fought to keep the records secret but ultimately lost the case.

But none of the other abuses documented in lawsuits and media reports came up during the meeting before the vote on the contract.

County Manager Morgas Baca said a couple of days after the vote, “Bernalillo County always strives to provide quality medical care for the inmates and this agreement will set a new standard for healthcare at MDC.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.