Pauli Halstead: Something amiss in jail health care
In early 2019, I wrote two letters to Sheriff Moon, the Board of Supervisors and county CEO Alison Lehman regarding Wellpath (then CFMG), the contracted correctional medical company that services the jail.
I pointed out that Wellpath had been sued numerous times in California for not providing appropriate medical and mental health treatment to inmates, which resulted in serious injury and death.
I recommended that the county require Wellpath to become accredited with the National Institute of Medical Quality before their contract renewal that June. There was no response.
I also warned: “Considering the potential of a lawsuit with CFMG, naming the Sheriff’s Department and Nevada County as co-defendants, it is necessary for Nevada County to take measures to make sure this does not happen.”
Subsequently, I learned there have been four lawsuits filed against the county, the Sheriff’s Department and Wellpath claiming that they did not provide prompt medical and mental health treatment to inmates.
The first lawsuit was filed Nov. 30, 2018, by Christopher Howie, who suffered a broken leg at the hands of Correctional Officer Adam Grizzell while being booked at the jail. Despite the obvious injury to his leg, according to the suit, Howie was shackled into wrist and ankle chains and thrown into a cell.
Howie claimed that in great pain, his pleas for medical attention were ignored despite multiple visits by CFMG personnel. The next morning correctional officers and CFMG staff rolled him out the back door of the jail in a wheelchair, and Howie had to call his own ambulance, according to his claims. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
The second lawsuit, filed May 24, 2019, by John Peterson, claimed deliberate indifference to his serious medical condition. Peterson suffered an injury to his leg by Grass Valley Police officers while being arrested. While in jail he developed a life-threatening bone infection, he claimed in the lawsuit, but CFMG medical personnel did not send him to the hospital for emergency medical care, instead dumping him out the door.
Barely able to walk, he made it to the gas station on Sacramento Street before collapsing, he claimed. Peterson was transported by ambulance to the hospital, where he underwent surgeries and was hospitalized for 45 days. Lawsuit pending.
The third lawsuit was filed Aug. 16, 2019, by Sonya Cavender, who claimed that she suffered a life-threatening stroke while an inmate at Wayne Brown. Cavender was denied medical treatment for many hours until she almost died, according to her claim, and she was finally taken by ambulance to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center. There she was treated for the stroke and consequential pulmonary edema, heart failure and related medical problems. Her lawsuit was settled out of court.
The fourth lawsuit, filed Jan. 28, involves the death of Gabriel Strickland, shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies and Grass Valley police officers on Jan. 1, 2020. Prior to the shooting, Strickland had been arrested and booked into Wayne Brown a couple of days earlier. In early 2016 a doctor employed by Wellpath diagnosed Strickland with bi-polar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety disorder. Since that mental evaluation, Strickland had been in custody at the jail on at least two other occasions.
The lawsuit alleges that during the last incarceration before his death, Wellpath and the Sheriff’s Department did not provide him with further mental health examinations or treatment or refer him to the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department or to a third-party mental health provider.
Instead, he was released even after Wellpath staff and corrections officers observed unusual behavior and verbal expressions indicating he had serious, active mental health issues, his suit claimed. Neither Wellpath or the Sheriff’s department took any action to place Strickland under involuntary hold for further psychiatric evaluation. Lawsuit pending.
Despite the lawsuits, it wasn’t until the most recent contract renewal, January 2021, that the county required Wellpath to become accredited. Accreditation means the National Institute of Medical Quality sends in a medical team to review policy and procedures and makes recommendations for improvements in inmate health care.
According to the terms of the contract, Wellpath has 18 months to receive accreditation. As of this date, they have not applied.
Why, after these egregious instances of negligent medical care and the lawsuits, have the Board of Supervisors and the sheriff granted such an extended time frame for accreditation? These lawsuits are being settled with taxpayer funds but with no improvement in policy.
Allowing an inmate to go without medical treatment and suffer extreme pain is a form of torture and should be considered a crime.
When I asked Chris Walsh, assistant district attorney, about this, he said he prosecuted Grizzell for the broken leg incident. But what about the others for denial of medical treatment?
One phrase that stuck in my mind during the Derek Chauvin trial: “When in custody, the person is in your care.”
Inmates have a constitutional right to prompt and adequate medical and mental health care. It is the responsibility of our Board of Supervisors and sheriff to make sure they get it.
Pauli Halstead is a member of the Nevada County Community Oversight Task Force, a group of concerned citizens who are delving into the policies and practices of local law enforcement. This is part 4 of a series.
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