Amid concern about health care for inmates in the Santa Barbara County Jail, the County Board of Supervisors will decide next week whether or not to renew a $10 million, two-year contract with the for-profit company Corizon Health Inc.
In June, the supervisors unanimously put the brakes on re-upping the contract after Sheriff’s personnel failed to provide details to their satisfaction about medical services in jail. Supervisor Janet Wolf, who has been outspokenly critical of the Sheriff’s Office, expressed frustration that only a one-page contract summary was provided, and the other four supes agreed.
Activists charged that health care (and mental-health care) in jails is inadequate. They collected letters from inmates complaining about care they receive in a jail known for its crowded conditions. The death of 52-year-old inmate Ray Herrera — who died of internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen due to cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis C, as stated in the coroner’s report — ignited further advocacy. His family retained an attorney to look into the case, and the investigation is ongoing.
Corizon, which is one of the largest correctional health-care providers in the nation, has faced criticism across the country. Last year, the company and Alameda County settled a wrongful-death lawsuit for $8.3 million after an inmate died after being tased by jail deputies.
In Santa Barbara, critics say that jail medical staff fail to provide prescription medicines, they take a long time to respond to inmates, and the jail lacks adequate mental-health services. But, given the looming deadline, activists wonder what options the supervisors realistically have. “My concern is, what is the alternative?” said activist Marissa Garcia, whose relative spent two years in the county jail. Other critics note that Ventura County Jail — which contracts with California Forensic Medical Group — is both newer and provides more immediate routine medical and dental care.
According to email communication obtained in a public records request by The Santa Barbara Independent, Sheriff’s personnel intended to delay submitting an application to be accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care until significant areas were addressed in May 2014. As it turned out, the application for accreditation was never completed, according to commission spokesperson Brent Gibson. When asked, Sheriff Bill Brown said he could not recall the details but vowed to find out. As of press time, his department was still working on it. A Corizon spokesperson said in an email that the application was submitted six months ago, but the inspection date had not been provided.
Public Defender Christine Voss noted she has had some “alarming cases where it was very apparent to me that my client was in either physical or mental distress, and Corizon seemed unaware or not adequately concerned about the issues.” Because of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws, Voss could not specify the details of those cases. Complaints from her clients include both the amount of time it takes to receive medical treatment and the brief time medical staff spend with inmates. Each of those cases ended differently, she said, but “people went without care for a very long time.”
For his part, Sheriff Brown is satisfied with Corizon. He acknowledged delays in non-life-threatening instances — a stomachache or a sore wrist — but said the medical services for inmates are profit driven. “The time that it takes for someone to be seen is a direct result of the level of staffing that we have that we contract for,” Brown said. He noted Corizon’s competitors face just as much, if not more, disapproval from the public. Corizon, Brown added, has less than a one percent complaint rate locally.
“It’s a tough business,” Brown went on. “Nobody wants to be in jail.” The sheriff noted that ultimately, critics tend to point fingers at everything that happens in jail, whether it’s the mail policy, food, mental-health service, or programming. “It’s very easy to be a critic and complain,” he said. “It’s more difficult to stand up and provide good quality service that is less than ideal.”
The supervisors may renew the two-year contract or opt to continue it for just one year