Massive settlements and jury awards in other states over the years provide a dismal view of the medical care provided to inmates by Corizon Health and other for-profit prison health care companies.
Last year, Corizon and Alameda County in California paid $8.3 million — the largest wrongful death civil rights settlement in that state’s history — to the family of a man who died in jail under the company’s care. In 2011, a Florida jury awarded an inmate $1.2 million after Corizon went weeks without treating a staph infection until the inmate was left partly paralyzed. The jury concluded the company, then operating as Prison Health Services, had a policy of refusing to send prisoners to hospitals to save money.
But in New Mexico, Corizon has been allowed to operate almost entirely in the shadows, even as more than 200 inmates have filed lawsuits against the company since it took over medical services for most of the state’s prisons in 2007. That’s because not one of the lawsuits has gone to a jury, and Corizon has kept all records of settlements secret.
The Corrections Department says the company can do that because under the terms of its contract with the state, it is responsible for defending itself in lawsuits and does so even when the state is named as a co-defendant.
“This is the problem with private corporations providing the care,” said civil rights attorney Matthew Coyte, who frequently represents prisoners, including some who have won settlements against Corizon. “They can insist on privacy in settlements, which is a great disservice to the community. These are often poor people who have had terrible things done to them. And they are offered money in compensation — and then asked for it to be held confidential. We should have transparency in these things.”
“If the state or its employees have been named as parties in those lawsuits, they should have a copy of the settlement documents, which therefore should be subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act.”
New Mexico Foundation for Open Government
Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said New Mexico “cannot contract away the state’s obligation under the Inspection of Public Records Act.”
“If the state or its employees have been named as parties in those lawsuits, they should have a copy of the settlement documents, which therefore should be subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act,” she said.
She added that the public has an interest in seeing the settlements.
“I as an individual would be hesitant to go to a doctor who has settled a lot of malpractice suits,” she said. “The public should be concerned about the vendors who are providing medical services to our prisoners. And if they have a long record of settlements because of poor medical care, that’s in the public interest.”
In response to public records requests by The New Mexican, the Corrections Department said it had no record of settlements and referred questions to Corizon. The state Risk Management Division had no record of Corizon settlements either.
Corizon told the newspaper: “Copies of medical malpractice settlements are bound by confidentiality restrictions between parties and we are not able to disclose the terms of those settlements.”
Martha Harbin, a Corizon spokeswoman, said in an email that the existence of a settlement “should not be assumed to be an admission of wrongdoing.”
“Regardless of the strength of a health care provider’s case, medical malpractice suits are expensive to defend, distracting to staff, and jury decisions are notoriously unpredictable,” she said. “The decision to settle a case often presents the least expense and risk to the defendant.”
Prison Legal News, a Florida-based nonprofit monthly magazine that reports on criminal justice issues and prison-related civil litigation, filed a lawsuit in March against Corizon and the state of New Mexico, demanding a list of settlements. The publication sued after the company and the Corrections Department denied its request for the records under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.
“Corizon Health cannot obscure its operations and refuse the press access to public records when it solely exists to serve a core government function,” the suit says. “Otherwise, New Mexicans would not be able to determine whether their tax dollars have been spent wisely.”
Of the 85 lawsuits naming Corizon in the past four years, 29 were dismissed or judged in favor of Corizon, 10 were settled and 46 remain open, according to court records.
While the merit of a case often is obscured by the settlement confidentiality restrictions, the strength of at least one inmate’s claim, which is still open, was laid out by a state judge before the lawsuit was even filed. The inmate, Rick McConnell, was four years into an 18-year sentence on drug and other charges in 2014 when state District Judge Jacqueline D. Flores ordered his sentence to be reduced to time served. The judge found his treatment in prison amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
McConnell had lost his leg after a forklift accident before his 2010 conviction. He was already serving time when his prosthetic leg was completed in September 2011. But the prosthetic didn’t fit. According to Judge Flores’ findings, McConnell was forced to use crutches, which were often taken away from him by prison staff at the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs, forcing him to hop on one leg.
McConnell “fell many times and was hurt, and he was forced to endure humiliating, painful and dangerous situations, and suffered greatly,” the judge wrote.
The prison medical staff, meanwhile, “failed to agree for a lengthy period of time that the prosthetic leg did not fit,” the judge said, and appointments to get a new one were repeatedly canceled.
After one appointment in 2011 in Albuquerque, McConnell was returned to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas and put in solitary confinement for 10 months while he waited to be fitted for another leg, despite never having been a disciplinary problem, the judge found. The judge called his treatment “wrongful, unjustifiable and inhumane.”
By the time he was released in November 2014, McConnell still didn’t have a new prosthetic leg.