After critical probe, NYC drops jail health care contractor

AP News
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Posted: Jun 10, 2015 2:07 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City on Wednesday dropped the private company that delivers health care in its jails after a year of scrutiny over high-profile deaths of mentally ill inmates and a city probe that found the company hired felons and provided questionable care.

Corizon Health Inc.'s contract, which is set to expire Dec. 31, won't be renewed and instead the city's public hospital system will run medical and mental health care for the roughly 70,000 inmates who pass through Rikers Island and other city jails every year, Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

"We have an essential responsibility to provide every individual in our city's care with high-quality health services — and our inmates are no different," he said.

The announcement comes as Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters revealed the findings of a six-month probe into the Brentwood, Tennessee-based company, the nation's biggest for-profit correctional health provider, which has been under contract with the city since 2001.

Corizon, and Rikers, have come under increased scrutiny since a series of reports by The Associated Press revealed the horrifying deaths of mentally ill inmates in recent years, including one who an official said "basically baked to death" in a sweltering cell and another who died after he was ignored for days, during which time he sexually mutilated himself. The AP first reported last fall that city officials were reviewing Corizon's contract in a story highlighting 15 inmate deaths deemed medical since 2009 in which investigators said the quality and timeliness of care was a factor.

The DOI report released Wednesday takes an in-depth look at Corizon's hiring practices, concluding that its background checks of new hires — which in some cases were nonexistent — failed to fully account for prospective workers' financial, criminal and professional histories, leaving them susceptible to corruption.

In a statement, the company said it was disappointed to lose the New York contract, emphasizing the challenges of providing health care in jails. It also disputed the report's findings, saying the conclusions are "misleading" and inappropriately place blame on Corizon instead of on the Correction and Health Departments, which oversee the jails.

In recent months, DOI has arrested a Corizon nurse on charges he took bribes for smuggling alcohol and tobacco to inmates, a mental health clinician on charges he smuggled tobacco and synthetic marijuana inside a lotion bottle and, last month, a Corizon employee who had served 13 years in prison for kidnapping on charges he smuggled a straight-edge razor into a Rikers facility.

The report further concluded that persistent communication problems between the Department of Correction, which runs the jails, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees inmate care, and Corizon, which provides the care, has resulted in pervasive hiring problems.

The Department of Correction hasn't conducted criminal background checks of the 1,100 fingerprinted Corizon employees working in city jails since at least 2011 — a problem it didn't discover until DOI informed them of it last year.

The fingerprints of hundreds of Corizon employees sent by the company to the Department of Correction for full criminal background checks were ignored, apparently never forwarded to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services and not run through the jail's own inmate intelligence databases, the report found. Investigators even discovered a 1-foot stack of Corizon employees' fingerprints, stuffed into FedEx envelopes, on a former top Department of Correction official's filing cabinet.

Even more concerning is that state officials stopped accepting physical fingerprints in 2010, moving to an electronic fingerprint system, the report found.

Speaking to reporters after the report's release, Peters said there was blame to go around — not only with city officials who failed to properly oversee Corizon's practices but also with company officials who never followed up on the status of the background checks.

"Regardless of how you slice it up, we're going to be left with the undisputed fact that it didn't get done right," he said. "And it's got to get done right."

After reviewing the files of 185 Corizon mental health workers, investigators found that in 89 cases, Corizon failed to conduct any background check at all, hiring employees whose professional licenses were suspect and, in eight cases, employees with criminal records for kidnapping, murder and other crimes.

In one case, Corizon hired a mental health clinician who disclosed in his application that his law license had been suspended for 30 months. DOI investigators found court officials suspended his license after discovering he "misappropriated" $1,000 in client funds and mismanaged client trusts.

That clinician was arrested in April for his role in a yearslong mortgage fraud scheme involving a partially blind 60-year-old client. He had recently been disciplined for improperly handling a suicidal inmate.