Jerry Sisneros had been incarcerated for just over five months when the pain began. It shot down his lower back and through both legs, making it difficult for him to walk to the infirmary at the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants, he says in a civil complaint.
He told medical staff he had chills, nausea and trouble urinating.
The 52-year-old Albuquerque man was treated for a urinary infection, according to his lawsuit, filed this week in the state District Court in Santa Fe, but he says medical staff ignored his more serious symptoms and did not refer him for specialized care.
Just after his release from prison in early April 2018, several weeks after his pain began, Sisneros was admitted to the Presbyterian Hospital emergency room in Albuquerque, where doctors found his spine inflamed and infected, the suit says.
He would spend 35 days hospitalized with lasting spinal damage.
Sisneros is now suing the state, the New Mexico Corrections Department and Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico LLC, which is contracted for more than $41 million per year to provide medical care at state prisons since 2016, including at the Grants facility.
The suit alleges medical malpractice and several counts of negligence, including improper training and supervision of medical staff at the prison; emotional distress; civil conspiracy; and breach of contract.
Centurion did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the Corrections Department doesn’t comment on allegations specific to pending litigation.
Sisneros’ case is among about two dozen filed against Centurion since it began operating in New Mexico. Parrish Collins, an Albuquerque attorney representing Sisneros, said he expects to file several more malpractice suits against the firm in the coming weeks alleging negligence and harm to sick prisoners.
Not only did Centurion fail to preform an adequate physical examination or investigate Sisneros’ back pain, the lawsuit claims, but the delay in his diagnosis caused an otherwise preventable hospital stay. Sisneros also had a history of heroin abuse and other medical problems that made him vulnerable to infection, the suit says, adding the facility should have been aware of this.
The lawsuit accuses Centurion of failing to properly treat inmates and refer them to specialists; it also alleges the company failed to establish or enforce infection control guidelines. This has led to numerous infections that caused “extensive and permanent injuries to inmates” and at least one death, the lawsuit says.
According to a wrongful death suit filed last year against the company, inmate David Vigil died in 2017, soon after being booked into the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas, where medical services also were provided by Centurion. Like Sisneros, Vigil complained of back pain that limited his ability to walk before his death; he also had a history of substance abuse, says the complaint, filed on behalf of his estate.
Sisneros’ complaint says the state and the Corrections Department did not require Centurion to abide by national health care guidelines and “failed to take corrective action against Centurion despite clear knowledge of the negligent and reckless provision of medical care” by the company.
Additionally, the suit alleges, Centurion’s accreditation by the American Correctional Association and National Commission on Correctional Health Care lapsed, without state intervention, indicating poor oversight of the medical provider.
Stelnicki denied that, saying he was informed by Corrections Department officials that “the facility has maintained ACA accreditation for many years and that the provider didn’t ‘lose’ accreditation — the prior administration’s secretaries had differing opinions about the need for accreditation.”
The state Department of Health conducted infection control assessments at all state prisons last year, Stelnicki said, and “all facilities have written infection control plans and safety and sanitation officers.”
The Corrections Department’s Health Services Bureau conducted audits of health care standards last year at all facilities, he added, and “the Northwest NM facility scored 100% on the audit.”
Centurion replaced New Mexico’s former Tennessee-based prison medical contractor, Corizon Health Inc., which was flooded with more than 150 lawsuits by 200 inmates in New Mexico in nine years. A 2016 investigation by The New Mexican found many of these problems were in part the result of lax state oversight.