Corrections Concerns

Current prison health workers say they fear retaliation if they speak out.

Just days before state legislators convene a hearing on correctional health care in New Mexico, a group of medical employees in the state prison system have come to SFR with allegations about how inmates are treated.

All four requested anonymity because they say they fear retaliation from Wexford Health Sources-the private company that administers health care in the prisons-if their identities are revealed.

The employees currently work at Central New Mexico Correctional Facility. They allege, among other things, that chronically ill inmates are forced to lie in their own feces for hours, are taken off vital medicine to save money and often wait months before receiving treatment for urgent medical conditions. Moreover, the employees say conditions at the facility are unsanitary.

“In my entire career, I’ve never seen this sort of stuff happening,” one employee says. “These inmates are not being treated humanely. They don’t live in sanitary conditions. They live in pain.”

Wexford Vice President Elaine Gedman denies all the employees' allegations in an e-mail response to SFR. Corrections spokeswoman Tia Bland says the department is unaware of these allegations and that "none of these issues have surfaced during our regular auditing process."

The employees’ allegations come on the heels of a series of stories by SFR, in which several former Wexford employees have publicly come forward with similar charges [Cover Story, Aug. 9: Hard Cell?].

As a result of the stories, the state Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee will hold a hearing on Oct. 20 in Hobbs to discuss the matter [Outtakes, Sept. 13: Checkup].

Wexford and the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD), which oversees the Pennsylvania-based company, have categorically denied charges that inmates are being denied proper health care.

These latest allegations are the first to come from current employees of Wexford. The employees describe an environment where medical staff must purchase their own wipes for incontinent patients because they say Wexford administrators say there's no money for supplies. They say there's a shortage of oxygen tanks and nebulizer machines (for asthma patients) and also scant protective equipment for those staff treating infectious diseases.

Gedman says, "Wexford is unaware of any shortage in medical supplies. Extra oxygen bottles and nebulizers are always on hand and ready for any emergency use. The oxygen bottles are inventoried daily as part of our emergency response requirement."

The employees also allege that chronically ill inmates sometimes wait what they say is too long to be taken off-site for specialty care. Gedman says this also is false and that Wexford "strongly encourages all of our providers to refer patients for necessary evaluation and treatment, off-site when necessary, as soon as problems are identified that need specialty referral."

All four employees say their complaints to Wexford administrators about the lack of supplies and treatment of inmates have been ignored, and all believe coming forward publicly will cost them their jobs. Gedman says this concern is unfounded because "Wexford encourages an open-door policy for all employees to bring issues to the attention of management so that they can be investigated and acted upon as appropriate."

Bland says Corrections staff are "visible and accessible in the prisons. If any of Wexford's staff would like to speak with us concerning these allegations, we welcome the information and will certainly look into the matter."

As for the legislative hearing, State Rep. Joseph Cervantes, R-Doña Ana, co-chairman of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, says he hopes some of these Wexford critics will show up in Hobbs. And he says further hearings are a possibility.

"I hope there is a full airing of the issues. I would like to learn that the Corrections Department is working to resolve all of this, but if they haven't, I expect to make deadlines for them so we can expect adequate progress," Cervantes says. "We'd still like to protect the anonymity and bring to light any allegations and complaints."

Cervantes also says he wants to introduce legislation during the next session to protect whistle-blowers. Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Private Corrections Institute watchdog group in Florida, says the Legislature must do everything it can to safeguard current Wexford employees against retaliation.

“The Legislature is the ultimate authority, and they need to put pressure on the Corrections Department to find out what the hell is going on. They also need to protect these employees so they can come forward and testify about their specific experiences,” Kopczynski says. “And if there are allegations of civil rights abuse, which is what it sounds like, then the Justice Department needs to come in.”

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