There were problems with Spokane County Jail’s health care long before a private contractor, NaphCare Inc., took over.
“I can’t even tell you how many things slipped through the cracks before,” said John McGrath, director of detention services for Spokane County.
In 2004, a 39-year-old woman died of a stroke after jail staff failed to provide her with a prescribed blood-thinning medication, in part because of a mix-up involving her surname. Venus Elder’s daughter later sued the county and reached a $250,000 settlement.
Last year, Kerrie Fernlund, the former vice president of the county nurses union, was named in a lawsuit over the February 2013 death of Christopher Parker, a 33-year-old diabetic man who lost consciousness and died while grappling with corrections officers in a restraint chair.
Parker’s family alleges he should have been sent to a hospital after Fernlund recorded his blood glucose at 416 milligrams per deciliter – an amount above what is commonly considered a medical emergency, according to the lawsuit.
A medical examiner ruled Parker’s death a homicide and said the cause was a methamphetamine overdose “with restraint stress.” The lawsuit states that his blood glucose level was over 2,000 at the time of death.
The county also is facing a lawsuit from Apolonio Saldana, a man with gang ties who arrived at the jail in January 2013 after undergoing multiple surgeries for stabbing and gunshot wounds on his limbs and torso.
The attorney representing him, Jeffry Finer, said Saldana, now 31, is “facing the likelihood of permanent loss of function” because medical staff at the jail waited months to address several post-surgery complications, including a knee fracture that caused a piece of a bone to protrude under his skin.
The lawsuit also names Dr. Criswell Kennedy, the jail’s former medical director, as a defendant and states that Saldana went months without prescribed painkillers and psychiatric medications.
Sgt. Tom Hill, who oversees the jail’s medical operations, suggested that county nurses “exercised more autonomy than they should have” and made medical decisions “that maybe exceeded their scope.”
Yet NaphCare’s history in facilities the company contracts with around the country also includes troubling cases.
Perhaps the worst involves the death of a mentally ill 24-year-old man who languished for weeks at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia. Jamycheal Mitchell died in his cell in August 2015 with a severely swollen leg and covered in his own feces and urine, according to a $60 million lawsuit brought by his family.
Mitchell had spent about four months in the jail for stealing $5 worth of snack food from a 7-Eleven. His family alleges NaphCare staff and jail officials allowed him to die by ignoring his rapid weight loss and other symptoms.
At the Richmond City Justice Center, also in Virginia, three inmates died within three days in July 2015, including one who had a seizure after NaphCare failed to provide him with medication, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Last August, a 48-year-old man died of a sepsis infection at the Pierce County Jail in Tacoma, Washington, after NaphCare failed to provide him with medications for his Crohn’s disease, according to a lawsuit brought by his parents. The Tacoma News Tribune reported that the inmate, Matthew Smith, also had mental health issues.
In 2003, Alabama dropped its contract with NaphCare after a state audit found the company was supplying “dangerous and extremely poor quality health care” at the Limestone Correctional Facility, according to the (Mobile) Press-Register. NaphCare called the audit “unsubstantiated” and sued its authors for libel.
In 2014, a mental health and addiction counselor who worked under contract for NaphCare was convicted of sexually molesting seven female inmates at a jail in Cincinnati.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, prosecutors said the counselor, Richard Anderson, was fired from two mental health agencies before NaphCare hired him – once for keeping pornography on his work computer and once for fondling a patient. Anderson also had a 1985 felony conviction for arson out of Georgia.
Brad Cain, a spokesman and attorney for NaphCare, said the company’s hiring process takes one to two weeks and involves a background check, drug testing, license verification and at least one interview.
“It’s proven to be problematic to control the quality of care when you bring in a third-party contractor,” said Nancy Fishman, a project director with the Vera Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C. “I think they don’t get held to the same standards that maybe a public entity would.”
Fishman co-authored a 2015 report titled “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America” and has advised Spokane County officials on criminal justice reform. Privatizing a jail’s medical operations, she said, can create “perverse incentives to not provide the best care.”