Fluvanna prison lawsuit celebrates small victories, faces uphill battle

The class action suit against the Department of Corrections and prison health care contractors operating at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women is now a year old. The class action suit against the Department of Corrections and prison health care contractors operating at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women is now a year old.

A year after Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center filed a class action suit on behalf of prisoners at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, alleging the prison’s health care contractor, Armor Correctional Health Services, Inc., consistently neglected serious health issues like blood clots and cancer, the plaintiffs are pointing to a few small victories as the case moves forward. But attorneys and advocates say the fundamental moral question at the heart of the controversy remains the same: How far does the state’s responsibility go when it comes to caring for the people it imprisons?

“At base, this case is about how we as a society conform to our own foundational principles even when dealing with unpopular individuals,” said attorney Brenda Castaneda of the LAJC.

On July 12, the U.S. District Court in Charlottesville approved the LAJC’s motion to add another defendant: Corizon Health, Inc., a Tennessee-based contractor that took over health care management at FCCW when Armor’s contract with the Department of Corrections expired on April 30. The company isn’t new to the market—Prison Health Services, Inc., now a part of Corizon, operated at FCCW before Armor started in November 2011.

Both Armor and Corizon have been sued numerous times in the past decade over allegations of inadequate medical care. The majority of cases were either dismissed or decided in favor of the corporations.

Armor spokeswoman Yeleny Suarez countered that the company faces a relatively low number of lawsuits for a health care provider.

“Armor’s litigation history compared to other companies in the industry is very favorable,” Suarez said. Most cases are dismissed, she said, because they arise from “inaccurate representations” of Armor’s practices.

But Castaneda said there have been problems with both.

“Everything we’ve seen so far [indicates] more of the same from Corizon,” she said. “I wish the care would be better, but that’s not what we’re hearing from our clients and it’s not what we anticipate based on past experiences.” Adding Corizon to the suit was necessary, she said, so the court can enjoin them to provide adequate care going forward.

The lawsuit cites numerous cases of women with severe conditions, including diabetes, massive blood clots and ulcers, cancer, and more. Plaintiffs say prison medical staff employed by Armor regularly ignored inmates’ requests for treatment and medication and denied them basic accommodations like extended bathroom privileges for an inmate with a chronic bladder condition. More than once, the suit says, negligence by prison medical staff resulted in an inmate’s death.

According to the allegations, a prisoner named Jeanna Wright complained for months of intense abdominal pain and rectal bleeding, beginning in 2011. “For at least one year,” the suit says, the staff assured Wright that she was “fine.”

Wright was eventually referred to UVA Medical Center, where doctors determined she had Stage IV abdominal cancer. She died weeks later.

The LAJC is seeking injunctive and declaratory relief—basically, a court order that the prison health care provider is legally obligated to provide better medical care and the DOC is responsible for monitoring them. The plaintiffs are not seeking any financial compensation.

Castaneda said the problems are systemic. Prison health care contractors provide services on a for-profit basis, she said, meaning they keep any money they don’t spend on treatment and medication. Individual contractors come and go, but a culture of neglect remains.

“It’s a problem, period, to have for-profit corporations involved with prisons,” Castaneda said. If the state decides that it’s important to incarcerate lawbreakers, she said, they shouldn’t outsource the process to private corporations looking to “make a profit by doing something that should be the function of the state.”

Now that Armor is no longer the health care provider at the prison, the company has filed a motion to dismiss and is seeking to be removed from the case. The parties are still awaiting judgement on that motion. But late last year, the court sided with the plaintiffs on another motion to dismiss—one from the DOC, which claimed the state’s job was only to hire, not monitor, its contractors.

DOC spokesman Larry Traylor said it was department policy not to comment on pending litigation. Corizon also declined to comment.

The issue of inadequate prison care isn’t limited to Virginia, said Nathan Riedy, executive director of Justice & Mercy, a prisoner rights advocacy group in Pennsylvania that deals with similar cases of neglect.

Riedy said there are for-profit companies that can provide adequate care, and it’s up to the state to make a responsible choice between competing contractors.

“There are some for-profit health care companies who have a desire to provide great care,” Riedy said. “They bid a certain amount that will actually provide adequate care. If the state picks a company that undercuts that bid and can’t possibly provide adequate care at that price, then it’s not only falling on the company, it’s falling on the state’s shoulders.”

With many states facing budget cuts, he said, reports of inadequate care are becoming more and more common as states are squeezed into accepting undercut bids. Prisoners who feel they have no recourse in the courts are making themselves heard by other means, like those participating in the widespread hunger strikes in California, organized in protest of solitary confinement practices many say are inhumane.

According to Suarez, the DOC’s decision not to renew Armor’s contract was purely financial. Suarez said the DOC was “clearly pleased with our services,” but Corizon undercut Armor’s bid by about $17 million annually, she said.

If past lawsuits against Corizon and Armor are any indication, LAJC may still face an uphill battle. Riedy members of the public often have negative perceptions of inmates in court.

“They think, ‘I don’t have great health care, why should the people in prison have health care at all? They’ve broken society’s rules.’ That’s the gut reaction and I think that affects the outcome of lawsuits,” he said.

But the plaintiffs have a powerful advocate in LAJC. In 2012, the organization played a major role in exposing, and amending, the excessive use of solitary confinement at maximum security Red Onion State Prison in Wise County.

The trial is set for May 2014. In the end, Castaneda said, the case is simple. Prisoners are sick or in pain, the state has a legal duty to take care of them while they’re behind bars, and it’s not happening.

“It’s hard to get more fundamental than that,” she said.

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