Expert: ‘Life-threatening’ health care lapses inside the jail even before Corizon took over

Leaked emails detail a medical staffing crisis that’s worsening at MDC outside Albuquerque

By: - January 11, 2022 5:30 am

A screenshot from a February 2019 Metropolitan Detention Center recruitment video.

A corporation with a history of lawsuits over dangerously bad and abusive health care practices was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract in September to provide medical care at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County.

This story is the third part in a series.

Corizon Health was contracted years ago to provide medical care in the state’s prisons, but after hundreds of inmates filed lawsuits, the company was dropped by the New Mexico Department of Corrections in 2016.

Still, Bernalillo County commissioners voted to pay Corizon $64.8 million to work inside the state’s largest jail for four years starting a few months ago in mid-October.

Two former employees told Source New Mexico that sometimes, Corizon is putting nurses who are underqualified into critical positions and leadership roles, and that endangers the inmates — and also threatens the nurses’ medical licenses.

As of Jan. 6, there were only three nurses working at the jail, one of the former workers said. 

Source New Mexico spoke with the former employees on the condition of anonymity, because they said they are not authorized to discuss company policies or practices.

Court filings and the former workers’ accounts indicate health care staff members have been quitting rapidly since Corizon took over, and coupled with a shortage of guards and other staff, the environment there is increasingly dangerous.

One ex-employee said sometimes a single nurse is running all around the jail answering crisis calls, and they end up missing requests for medical attention from other inmates.

Inmates are people, and they deserve humane conditions, said attorney Alexandra Freedman Smith, who is representing people jailed at MDC. They have constitutional rights to humane treatment, too, she added.

The McClendon case

Attorneys representing the inmates and the county government in May 2016 agreed to a court-appointed medical expert to begin tracking the constitutionality of the jail’s medical services and staffing levels as part of the decades-long, class-action case McClendon v. Albuquerque.

Greifinger was responsible for looking at the basics: how jail staff record inmates’ medical histories when they’re booked, or whether people can see a nurse when they ask for one.

“These are people who are in jail, many of them have not even been convicted of any sort of a crime,” she said. “Anybody can be charged with a crime. These are people who have not yet been adjudicated as guilty. And they deserve to have humane conditions just like anybody else.”

Expert: Jail health care was ‘deficient’ before Corizon, too

A court-appointed medical expert who helped evaluate MDC reported in September on poor medical care at the jail under the previous medical provider Centurion Health.

Dr. Robert Greifinger is a physician who has worked in health care for inmates and detainees for more than 30 years. He identified systemic gaps in medical care inside the jail, with several patients receiving “substantially deficient” care. The doctor wrote that “these problems were apparent in several deaths” in his evaluation, cited in a Dec. 29 court filing.

The doctor also reported “life-threatening” lapses in essential medication for patients.

He wrote that clinical performance had not improved since his last visit six months earlier and concluded there was “substantial risk of harm remaining.”

Dr. Greifinger also expressed concern that the transition to a new medical vendor would mean moving to a whole new electronic medical record system and then more problems with medical care at MDC. A nurse’s resignation email confirms his suspicions.

No comment

Source New Mexico reached out to the county manager, spokespeople and commissioners to set up interviews. The county was the target of a ransomware attack, and that’s delayed them all in responding, Manager Julie Morgas Baca said. 

Corizon did not respond to a request for comment. 

We’ll update this story if we hear back.

Leaked email details staffing crisis

In early December, a nurse turned in their badge after management put medical workers and inmates in a precarious situation at the jail, according to an internal email obtained by Source New Mexico. The nurse also corroborated that many other nurses and support staff were leaving the facility due to Corizon’s practices.

During a night shift, management had asked another nurse to take over intake duties, according to the email, but that person declined and walked out of the jail because they were not properly trained on the new intake system that was installed by Corizon. The one remaining nurse learned there would also not be a counselor available for the rest of the night, leaving that nurse responsible for all mental health crisis calls alone, the email said.

That night, management tried to have the charge nurse also take over the intake duties, “which is impossible,” the email continues — and it wasn’t the first time that the nurse had been asked to cover both positions at once.

The jail used to have a system to verify inmates’ medications, the resigning nurse wrote, but that system was scrapped after Corizon came in and has not been replaced.

The email indicates another staff member had been trying to work with Corizon on behalf of the nursing and medical staff, but their concerns were “falling on deaf ears.”

This was echoed by the two former employees who spoke with Source New Mexico. They said they tried to alert Corizon and other staff that conditions were bad at the jail but faced dismissiveness and disrespect in response.

Suicide watch

Corizon’s director of nursing at MDC in mid-December offered bonus pay to nurses for every shift they picked up, another leaked email shows. There were about 14 nurses being asked to cover 32 shifts between then and the end of 2021, most of them graveyard weekend shifts.

The medical staffing shortage got so bad over the New Year weekend that Corizon implemented a new schedule and protocol for the psychiatric unit at the jail specifically for when no psychiatric counselor was around, according to screenshots of the policy reviewed by Source New Mexico.

The policy requires all nursing staff to help put inmates on “clinical seclusion” or suicide watch whenever a psychiatric counselor is not around.

The policy states that any nurse can place an inmate on suicide watch and claims that “this practice is not outside the scope of an RN’s license as it is an issue of an inmate’s health and safety.”

But according to one of the former employees, nurses didn’t object to putting inmates on a default suicide watch by saying it’s outside of their scope of practice. Instead, they refused to do it because it is unsafe, they are not properly trained, and they didn’t want to put inmates’ safety at risk, the ex-worker said.

“Corizon has then fired them,” said the former employee.

Multiple nurses sent out mass emails to all staff at the jail asking what management was doing about so many people resigning and the situation not improving from when Centurion ran medical care at the jail, according to both of the former employees.

Almost immediately, the company blocked the workers’ ability to send any more mass emails, one said: “Instead of replying, they shut it down.”

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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.