Santa Rita jail where Martin Harrison died. Copyright: The Wall Street Journal
By: Dominik Taylor
“Martin Harrison’s legacy will be safer care for jail and prison inmates around the country. His family . . . was committed to making sure that Martin’s death was not in vain. They have succeeded completely.” – Julia Sherwin, attorney for the Harrison family
On Tuesday, February 10th, 2015, the largest wrongful death settlement in a civil rights case in the history of California was reached. The parties to this settlement were the family of Martin Harrison (the plaintiffs) and Alameda County, California and Corizon Health, Inc. (the co-defendants).
Defendant Alameda County is the San Francisco Bay Area county that includes Oakland, Berkeley, and Hayward, amongst several other cities. Alameda is home to over 1.5 million residents.
But who was Martin Harrison? Who or what is Alameda’s co-defendant, Corizon Health, Inc.?
Martin Harrison died on August 2010 at the age of 50. Harrison died two days after he was severely beaten and tased by ten Santa Rita Jail deputies in Alameda County.
Corizon is one of the largest for-profit prison healthcare providers in the United States. Corizon, a privately held corporation, operates in 27 states and services more than 345,000 inmates.
Among the jails that Corizon services is Alameda’s Santa Rita Jail. In February 2013, Alameda County awarded Corizon a three-year contract extension worth $210 million. Corizon and its predecessors have operated within Alameda County for last 27 years, and Corizon is responsible for overseeing the 3400 inmates in Alameda’s two jails, Santa Rita and Glenn Dyer.
Harrison was held at Santa Rita Jail following an August 13, 2010 arrest for jaywalking and for having an outstanding warrant stemming from a failure to appear in court on a prior DUI charge.
The State of California requires prison healthcare contractors to provide Registered Nurses (RNs) to assess inmates upon intake. However, instead of an RN, an unsupervised licensed vocational nurse (LVN) conducted Harrison’s intake screening. While RNs hold professional nursing degrees, LVNs only hold a “practical” degree to provide basic nursing care. LVNs usually work under the supervision of an RN or physician. Healthcare providers, such as Corizon, can pay LVNs substantially less money than RNs, as LVNS do not have as much educational experience or training.
According to the Harrison family’s attorneys, Harrison told the LVN that he drank everyday and that he had a history of alcohol withdrawal. Despite his repeated requests for treatment, the LVN decided that Harrison was not at risk of alcohol withdrawal. Instead of receiving medical treatment, the LVN sent Harrison to a jail cell.
While in his cell at Santa Rita, Harrison began hallucinating due to a severe form of alcohol poisoning, known as delirium tremens. According to the National Health Institute, medical attention and immediate hospitalization is required for someone suffering from delirium tremens. No treatment was provided for Harrison, however. He remained in his cell. For three days, he was frequently heard screaming. He was left in his cell screaming and going through withdrawals until August 16, 2010. On that day, at around 6:30 p.m., deputies attempted to move Harrison to another cell.
Harrison resisted as a deputy tried to usher him out of the cell. In response, the deputy Tased Harrison. The deputy then called for backup. Several other deputies—ten in total—rushed over to Harrison and repeatedly kicked, punched, and Tased him. After severely beating Harrison, the officers placed Harrison in leg shackles and handcuffs.
Shortly after the beating, while a nurse was examining Harrison, he became unresponsive. Harrison never regained consciousness. Two days later, Harrison died. Cause of death: “cardiac arrest following excessive exertion, multiple blunt injuries and Tasering.”
As part of the settlement with the Harrison family, Corizon announced that it will stop employing LVNs to complete tasks that California law mandates that RNs perform. According the Harrison family’s attorneys, Corizon saved 35% in costs for every LVN Corizon enlisted to perform duties that RNs should be performing.
Corizon also agreed to employ RNs to perform inmate screenings at all of the other California facilities that it operates it. Corizon currently has contracts in four California counties (Alameda, Fresno, Santa Barbara, Tulare). Lastly, Corizon expressed a desire to ensure that it provides a better standard of care to inmates. U.S. District Court Judge Jon S. Tiger will monitor Corizon and Alameda for at least the next four years to ensure that they are complying with the terms of the settlement.
Harrison’s case is an archetype of why our nation’s prisons and jails need to provide better healthcare. Harrison never should have been sent to a jail cell. He should have, instead, received immediate medical attention for alcohol withdrawal. Mr. Harrison’s death was not in vain though, as prison reform will ostensibly be implemented in the four California counties where Corizon operates.
Unfortunately, news of a settlement in this case in is no way the end of the battle for better quality—and simply put, more humane—prisoner healthcare. The Harrison family settlement is just the latest battle in long war to reform America’s prisons and to obtain the adequate healthcare that all prisoners are constitutionally guaranteed.
In Estelle v. Gamble, a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case, the Court affirmed that prisoners have a constitutional right to adequate medical attention, and that the Eighth Amendment is violated when prisons and jails display “deliberate indifference” to an inmate’s medical needs.
Writing for the Court in Estelle, Justice Thurgood Marshall stated: “An inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs; if authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met. In the worst cases, such a failure may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death’ . . . In less serious cases, denial of medical care may result in pain and suffering which no one suggests would serve any penological purpose . . . The infliction of such unnecessary suffering is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency as manifested in modern legislation.”
After the Harrison family settlement was reached, Alameda County Sherriff Greg Ahern was quoted as saying, “Things could have been done better and we are very sad it resulted in an inmate death.” But Ahern also said that Corizon has done “a fantastic job” at Santa Rita. Again, this was right after a Santa Rita inmate named Martin Harrison died… and the county sheriff publicly stated that Corizon has done a “fantastic job?” Really?
A man had just died and the county was protecting its corporate friend, not human beings. This response points to why the close relationships between corporations like Corizon and state and local governments must be stopped. To understand the depth to which the bottom-line and profit driven Corizon has no business running the healthcare system in our jails, let’s take a look at another state. A state where Corizon has a heavy presence as the holder of a lucrative contract to provide healthcare to prisons and jails. That state is Alabama.
For the last two and a half years, the Alabama Department of Corrections has contracted with Corizon. Prior to that, Alabama contracted with Corizon’s predecessor, Correctional Medical Services, from 2007-2012. On February 9, 2015, Corizon announced that Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) approved a renewal of Corizon’s $224 million contract. This contract extension brings the contract’s total cost up to $405 million, a staggering amount. Despite the re-upping of the contract between Alabama’s DOC and Corizon, it cannot be said that Corizon has done anything close to a “fantastic job” in Alabama, where Corizon is responsible for providing healthcare to the State’s 25,100 inmates.
As revealed in May 2013, Alabama actually gave Corizon failing marks on an internal audit of the healthcare provider’s job in Alabama facilities. Despite the failing grades, Alabama still extended Corizon’s contract through September 2017. And Alabama isn’t the only state where Corizon has failed internal audits. In 2014, the Secretary of Florida’s Department of Corrections threatened to withhold payment of a five-year, $1.2 billion contract, because Corizon “continues to fall below the contractually required standard.” Audits of Corizon in Florida showed that Corizon was providing deficient medical care, nursing, and administration. Corizon has also been subject to lawsuits in Georgia, New York, New Mexico, Minnesota, Washington D.C., and has been accused of providing deficient healthcare in Mississippi and Maine.
On June 17, 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal lawsuit against Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC), alleging that ADOC is violating federal laws by ignoring the medical and mental health needs of prisoners. The class action lawsuit contains 40 named plaintiffs who allege that ADOC failed to provide adequate health care, and that this failure constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that, due to ADOC’s “deliberate indifference,” Alabama prisoners oftentimes go for months without appropriate diagnoses, and that prisoners have died because they were not treated for condition such as diabetes and cancer.
The SPLC lawsuit isn’t for the faint of heart. SPLC has reported that numerous Alabama prisoners have had toes, feet, and legs amputated as a result of receiving poor diabetes treatment. SPLC also reported staph outbreaks, scabies outbreaks, raw sewage being allowed to leak into a facility, and that a prison guard was allowed to continue working, despite the fact that he had TB. The case is scheduled to go to trial in 2016.
Corizon is not a named defendant in the SPLC lawsuit. But Corizon is paying for prominent Alabama-based law firm Maynard Cooper & Gale to defend the State of Alabama in the lawsuit. Under the terms of Corizon’s contract with the State, Corizon must pay for any litigation resulting from Corizon’s provision of healthcare in Alabama prisons and jails. Of course, both ADOC and Corizon dispute the claims made in SPLC’s lawsuit. [On an interesting yet seemingly unrelated note, Maynard Cooper & Gale announced in August 2014 that it was opening its first office outside of Alabama. That office is in San Francisco.]
In California, Corizon saved 35% costs by tasking LVNs—instead of RNs—to conduct inmate intakes. Corizon’s cost-saving policy led to Martin Harrison being placed in a jail cell, instead of in a hospital bed. After being trapped in his cell for three days and suffering from alcohol withdrawals, Santa Rita deputies literally beat Harrison to death. Despite Harrison’s death, Alameda renewed its contract with Corizon in 2013.
Through continuing it relationship with Corizon—despite the Harrison family lawsuit—Alameda County, just like the state of Alabama, is placing inmates at risk of pain and suffering in arguably unconstitutional conditions. Simply put, Corizon is placing profits over people. Yes, private corporations place profits over people on a daily basis. But if a private corporation makes hundreds of millions of dollars off government contracts, as Corizon does, isn’t it fair to expect that the company do a “fantastic job?” Certainly, corporations like Corizon must at least be expected to pass internal audits, right? Apparently not.
Over the last two decades, private for-profit healthcare providers, such as Corizon, have continually struck lucrative deals with state and local governments. This is as, prison healthcare has become increasingly privatized by state and local governments in an effort to cut costs while meeting the requirements of Estelle. Corizon makes over $1.5 billion annually from its revenue and contracts with state and local governments. Corizon frequently employs cost-cutting measures to ensure that it maximizes its potential revenue. Corizon’s cost-cutting is partially responsible for the death of Martin Harrison. Corizon’s cost-cutting and lack of responsiveness are part of the reason Alabama’s Department of Corrections is being sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
As noted in a 2014 report by the non-profit Prison Legal News, “When Corizon compromises medical care to save money, such as curtailing the use of ambulances for emergency transports, reducing the number of on-site doctors or sending fewer prisoners to outside hospitals for needed treatment, government officials typically fail to take corrective action and deny responsibility for the resultant deaths and injuries.”
Alameda County and Alabama DOC’s continued relationships with Corizon serve as perfect examples of state and local governments denying responsibility and failing to take corrective action for the deaths and injuries that have resulted from Corizon’s substandard, shoddy, and frankly unacceptable healthcare services.
Julia Sherwin, attorney for the Harrison family, stated, “Martin Harrison’s legacy will be safer care for jail and prison inmates around the country. His family . . . was committed to making sure that Martin’s death was not in vain. They have succeeded completely.”
The Harrison family’s settlement cannot be deemed a complete success. The Harrison family settlement is just the latest battle in long war to reform America’s prisons and to obtain the adequate healthcare that all prisoners are constitutionally guaranteed.
A record-breaking settlement in the Harrison case and SPLC’s lawsuit against ADOC should be used as a springboards for concerned tax-paying citizens and prison reform advocates to start a more serious, focused discussion on the provision of healthcare in prisons and on the lack of responsibility demonstrated by state and local governments in doling out prison healthcare contracts. Serious questions need to be asked and state and local governments must be held accountable. Private for-profit prison healthcare providers must be held accountable.
It all boils down to this: As the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Estelle, prisoners have a constitutional right to adequate healthcare. If state and local governments are going to contract with for-profit private corporations to provide prisoner healthcare, then it is absolutely imperative that those corporations deliver the care that prisoners are constitutionally entitled to. If providers, such as Corizon, continuously fail time after time, in county after county, and state after state, then state and local governments must end their relationships with these corporations.
Alameda County and Corizon are splitting the cost of the $8.3 million settlement with the Harrison family. That’s $4.15 million a piece. Martin Harrison is dead as the result of Corizon’s cost-cutting measures and a lack of oversight or responsibility by Alameda County. Instead of splitting the cost of a settlement, it’s fair to wonder whether a better solution would be for Alameda County to ditch Corizon completely. Alameda County is responsible for ensuring that its prisoners receive the adequate healthcare that they are constitutionally entitled to. If Alameda County and counties like it across the county do not take this responsibility seriously, then it is up to us to demand they do so.
 According to the Contra Costa Times, in a separate 2013 lawsuit, Alameda County and Corizon Health, Inc. settled with Martin Harrison’s fifth child (a minor).
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