In the wake of inmate deaths, Allegheny County will begin overseeing jail health care next month. So why are some advocates still feeling queasy? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In the wake of inmate deaths, Allegheny County will begin overseeing jail health care next month. So why are some advocates still feeling queasy?

“I think there is a lot of culpability within the county.”

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Twelve of the 14 findings in Wagner’s audit specifically point out deficiencies of the health-care company, such as not maintaining required staffing levels, not providing inmates with clinical care, and failing to reply to inmate grievances in a timely manner.

Compounding the failure of Corizon and the county, is that five inmates have died since the audit was released on Dec. 15, 2014. 

“We are not in front of [the problems],” says Allegheny County Councilor Heather Heidelbaugh. “The county had information. How long did they know before acting?”

Heidelbaugh says council did not vote on the decision to end Corizon’s contract, the decision to partner with AHN when the county becomes the provider, or even to end the previous provider’s (Allegheny Correctional Health Services) contract back in 2012. Heidelbaugh says she understands that “the executive has the full ability to sign contracts” but wishes that the council could be more involved in the process. 

Judge Joseph Williams, a member of the Jail Oversight Board, offers a slightly different account. Williams says that, since he joined the board this January, he was involved in talks with Fitzgerald about a transition away from Corizon.

“Corizon to me is almost like a McDonalds. They are all over, and they have a menu that is broad and not specific,” says Williams. “We are not a franchise, we are Allegheny County. We have more room for flexibility and more degrees of freedom in our health care.” 

In March, the Jail Oversight Board did meet with county council members to discuss its role with the jail. According to meeting minutes, Williams said at that time that a decision would need to be made about the continuation of Corizon’s contract in the “relatively near future.”

But Johnson, of the Justice Project, thinks that the county did not react fast enough. There were two highly publicized deaths in less than 30 days between December 2014 to January, the same month that Williams says he spoke with Fitzgerald about ending the Corizon contract.

“It is so egregious,” says Johnson. “The fact that the county did not step in immediately, and waited for more deaths and protests to happen to actually make some changes.”

Williams says that the county was waiting to see if “things would get better” at the jail before making a decision. During that time, Williams says county officials were “pooling resources from around the region,” such as local universities, to figure out how to better manage health care at the jail.

“I think we have turned the corner on it. I don’t see it as a crisis like I did seven months ago,” says Williams.

Johnson believes things won’t really get better until the county focuses on accountability and it gets its priorities straight.

“We should not just be focused on the most expedient and cost-saving policies,” says Johnson. “The reason that Corizon was brought in was to save half-a-million dollars. Their priority is saving money, not the human rights of the incarcerated.”

Typically, money has been the main concern surrounding county jail health care. Heidelbaugh, who has served on the county council since 2011, says when the council does discuss health care at the jail, the discussion is usually about money. Heidelbaugh adds that when she has tried to discuss other issues at the jail, such as inmates not receiving medication, she was ignored.

Documentation backs up this complaint. When then-County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty audited the former jail health-care provider, Allegheny Correctional Health Services in 2007, cost-cutting was the major component of all six findings. In fact, the audit even suggested ACHS investigate “the possibility of charging inmates a health-care service fee to control medical costs.”

So when costs continued to rise, reaching a peak of $13 million in 2012, ACHS was dissolved and the county started its contract in 2013 with Corizon for $11.5 million for the first year.

Now, Corizon is out and the county is taking over as the main health-care provider with help from AHN. At the time this story went to press, the arrangements are still unknown.

Grote, of the Abolitionist Law Center, wishes there was more transparency surrounding the county jail. He says the county still doesn’t have any of its policies online and it never shares any of them with the public: “We have no indication as of what they doing.” 

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson