Under Correction

Prison health care switch pending.

For Elizabeth Ocean, the poor medical and psychological care at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility (SNMCF) in Las Cruces had become too much to bear. After three years working as a mental health counselor there, she quit her job last March.

Ocean tells SFR that inmates reported waiting weeks, even months, for medical and dental appointments and to receive prescription medications.

“The guys came to me constantly about the medical care,” Ocean says. “They were going and putting in requests and waiting so long to be seen. A lot of times, they were being told there was nothing wrong with them.”

Wexford Health Sources, a private, Pennsylvania-based company, has handled health care in New Mexico’s state prisons since July 2004. On the heels of a six-month SFR investigative series on Wexford, in which many former and current Wexford employees came forward, Gov. Bill Richardson told the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) on Dec. 8 to replace Wexford [Outtakes, Dec. 13: “Wexford Under Fire”].

NMCD spokeswoman Tia Bland says NMCD is moving ahead with the termination process and that a request for proposals will be crafted by March. Bland says NMCD has identified at least one area-staffing shortages-in which Wexford violated the terms of its state contract. Wexford Vice President Elaine Gedman did not return phone or e-mail messages.

Ocean says the problems in the facility where she worked were systemic. Earlier this year, she says she wrote letters to the US Justice Department and the governor's office, alerting them to the health care deficiencies. She also wrote of four fellow mental health counselors whom Ocean alleges were operating without state licenses; Ocean also filed a complaint last January with the New Mexico Counseling and Therapy Practice Board.

On May 17, Erma Sedillo, NMCD's deputy secretary of operations, wrote Ocean on behalf of the governor's office to inform her that NMCD was working to obtain the counselors' temporary licenses.

Sedillo did not return a phone message, but spokeswoman Bland confirms a past "licensure issue" at NMCD because the department was unaware of a recent change in existing state regulations that now require mental health professionals working in prisons to obtain a full state counseling license.

"When we discovered the change, we got all of our counselors to obtain full licenses," Bland says.

As for Ocean, she is out of the prisons, but still connected. Ocean is married to an inmate and former patient at SNMCF, who is incarcerated for murder. She says their relationship started after he was no longer a patient.

Ocean adds: “I saw with my own eyes all the problems, all the injustices at the prison before I ever married him.”

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