Trade secrets

Prison malpractice settlements surface

Adam Harrison knew he needed help.

Repeatedly, he asked to see psychiatrists at Pontiac Correctional Center, but doctors didn't make scheduled appointments – the first was missed in September of 2015. Doctors skipped two rescheduled sessions in October. That's what the plaintiff says.

Twice in the late summer and fall of that year, Harrison, who'd been considered a suicide risk in prison, was placed on crisis watch. His supply of Buspar, a psychotropic that eases anxiety, ran low. Nineteen days after Harrison ran out of pills, he was found in his cell, dead, a plastic bag, towel and jumpsuit wrapped around his head. He died on Nov. 7, 2015, shortly before his parole date. He'd last seen a psychiatrist the previous July.

Last April, Wexford Health Sources, holder of a $1.5 billion contract to provide health care in state prisons, agreed to pay $280,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Harrison's mother. We know this because, after a four-year battle for information on Wexford settlements, the first ones arrived last week from the Department of Corrections. We should be seeing more, given that the Illinois Supreme Court in December ruled such records are public. A request for malpractice settlements dating back to 2010 has been pending for nine months.

The first batch, 20 cases handled since January, shows that Wexford, which had argued that settlements with wards of the state amount to trade secrets, agreed to pay more than $1.2 million in amounts ranging from $200 to $400,000.

Upon release from Southwestern Correctional Center in 2014, Gerry Armbruster applied for Medicaid, then went to a hospital, where he was rushed to emergency surgery to address a spinal cord compression that put him in agony during his final five months in prison. A Wexford doctor who missed the diagnosis had x-rayed Armbruster's knees, according to his lawsuit. Six months after surgery, Armbruster's doctor said that symptoms persisted, damage could be irreversible due to lack of treatment in prison and that the patient, then 41, could not function in a workplace due to risk of paralysis.

Wexford settled the case in July for $400,000, the same amount received in January by Lamont Hall, who had somehow shot his own penis before arriving at Stateville Correctional Center in 2014. Hall had been scheduled for reconstructive surgery prior to his arrest for a parole violation. While doctors on the outside recommended surgery, Wexford said no. Absent numbing gel that had been prescribed, Hall used catheters, which he says was both physically painful and humiliating: Without surgery, he could not urinate while standing, and other inmates noticed. "(T)hey was harassing me and stuff due to the fact that I had to self-catheterize and sit and use it as a woman," Hall testified during a deposition. "And, you know, they was making all type of disturbing remarks." Hall settled for $25,000 less than a jury had awarded in a verdict appealed by Wexford.

Charles Almond settled for $70,000. He tore a quadriceps muscle, and likely broke a knee, in a 2013 fall at Dixon Correctional Center. He promptly told Wexford staff, but it was a month before a doctor examined him and nearly two years before he underwent orthopedic surgery to repair the damage.

Greg Coleman sued after he awoke to pain in his right ear at Stateville in 2016. He reported it right away but wasn't immediately helped. Meanwhile, he says that his reddened ear became bloody and swollen, and he lost hearing. Ten days after pain arrived, a nurse flushed pieces of cockroaches from Coleman's ear; two days later, a doctor and nurse flushed out two whole cockroaches and additional cockroach body parts. In his lawsuit, Coleman complains that a Wexford doctor wouldn't send him to an ear doctor and that his hearing did not return as the doctor had promised. He says he also lost sleep worrying that cockroaches would crawl into his ears and lay eggs. He hit the Wexford settlement jackpot for $9,750.

Such cases shouldn't surprise folks familiar with health care in Illinois prisons, where court-appointed monitors and a judge have opined that substandard health care amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. We barely pay attention anymore. It seems perfectly normal to give a 10-figure contract to a corporation with a business model predicated on cutting costs for patients who can't seek second opinions.

Nearly 55 percent of state inmates are African Americans, but we don't hear politicians talk much about prison health care, even as they thunder about systemic racism and decry damage done by the war on drugs – some have called incarceration in America the new Jim Crow. On the other hand, some might argue that all inmates, regardless of color, are at equal risk should they fall ill.

I am told that more settlement documents are en route. When they arrive, we might better know the price of pain and how prison health care pencils out.

Contact Bruce Rushton at [email protected].

Bruce Rushton

Bruce Rushton is a freelance journalist.

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