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Advocates Launch Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

A month ago, Frank Smart made a phone call from the Allegheny County Jail declaring that he was not receiving his anti-seizure medication.  A few hours later – after one day of being in the jail’s custody – he was dead.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened in the Allegheny County Jail, according to Randa Ruge, an organizer for “United Steelworkers of America.”

That’s why area advocacy organizations have launch of the Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project.  The project aims to ensure that inmates receive comprehensive health care.

Tennessee-based Corizon Health Management, Inc., was contracted in September 2013 to provide health care for the inmates.

Ruge said the jail’s staff soon came to the United Steelworkers worried about being able to keep up with the inmates’ basic – as well as extensive – needs.

“Their concerns were really about the ability to provide quality healthcare, the ability to have the medications that the inmates need at their disposal, the ability to have very basic supplies at their demand,” Ruge said.

Jail staff is represented by United Steelworkers, which is in the process of bargaining a contract.

According to Ruge, Corizon has reported to the Jail Oversight Board that the company is making improvements in regard to staffing and supplies and management and policies.  However, she said the workers they represent disagree, and say they’re still not able to live up to the standards they would like to practice with their profession.

Ruge said the company signed an $11.5 million a year contract with the promise of saving money.  She said they were awarded the contract because they underbid other healthcare providers by about a million dollars.

“And that million dollars seems to come out of staffing, seems to come out of supplies, seems to come out of the basic healthcare that they have signed a contract to provide,” Ruge said.

She said they are trying pressure those who are responsible for the care of the inmates, including Corizon, the Jail Oversight Board and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Many of the inmates are awaiting trial and others are there on minor convictions, according Ruge.

“And regardless of what the charges are or whether or not they faced trial and have been found guilty, we live in the United States and they are given the constitutional right to health services,” she said.

And she added that this is money out of taxpayers’ pockets.

“We can’t let the taxpayers foot the bill for services that lend themselves to death, to injury, and to possible litigation.”

County Controller Chelsa Wagner recently released what she called a "damning" audit of Corizon's fulfillment of its contractual obligations.

In a written statement, Corizon spokesman David La Torre said the company cares “a great deal” about the inmates’ safety as well as the communities where the companies work.

“For the occurrence in question, Corizon doctors and nurses acted quickly and efficiently to provide the patient with evidence-based and appropriate medical interventions to address his health concern. Staffing levels were also in fulfillment of contract requirements.

We are always deeply disappointed when confronted with serious medical occurrences, but they are part of the job of caring for patients in challenging circumstances.

As a physician-led company, our goal is to provide quality healthcare to patients who enter incarceration with more illnesses and chronic conditions than the general population. Many times they have not had access to medical care, and we are committed to doing all we can to restore them to health.”

County spokeswoman Amie Downs would not comment for this story.

Jess is from Elizabeth Borough, PA and is a junior at Duquesne University with a double major in journalism and public relations. She was named as a fellow in the WESA newsroom in May 2013.
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