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Bernalillo County jail left with no medical director or doctor

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The Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County does not have sufficient medical staff for the 1,200 incarcerated people inside, according to attorneys representing inmates. This has been a long-term issue at the jail. Austin Fisher from Source New Mexico is continuing his investigation about this lack of medical staff, which is the second of a two-part series on security and healthcare issues at the detention center.

AUSTIN FISHER: So last fall, this Tennessee-based company named Corizon Health took over medical care inside the jail they promised under this current under a contract with the county that they would to provide for an increase in medical staff, a phlebotomist to ease stress on the nurses and addiction treatment specialist and seven full time medical staff who could monitor patients. Instead, according to the attorneys that represent the inmates, there has not been a medical director or an onsite physician at the jail and more and more nurses are resigning.

KUNM: So this lack of staffing is not only medical staff, but it’s jail guards also. So how is this lack of staffing affecting those who are left behind to take care of 1200 inmates and how is it affecting the inmates' daily lives?

FISHER: Alexander Friedman Smith is one of the lawyers representing the inmates. She tells me that her clients are locked in their cells for days at a time with jail staff only checking on them once per hour, making it impossible for them to even take showers, call their families, or even get to court proceedings. In November a man was beaten to death by a cellmate because there were not enough jail guards to supervise them. And there was no one to answer the calls for help from other inmates as he was killed. Calls for help in other medical emergencies, including seizures have also gone unanswered.

The previous medical providers, Centurion Detention Health Services, prematurely ended its contract with the county in June 2021. The county manager said at the time that the County asked Centurion to address the concerns about inmates dying on their watch but the company just pulled out of the contract instead. And that was part of the public discussion around hiring in an attempt to improve the conditions inside the jail.

I also asked, did any nurses try to take some sort of collective action to try to solve this problem? And I was told that multiple nurses sent out mass emails to all staff of the jail, asking about what management was doing, about so many people resigning, and the situation not improving. Almost immediately, the company blocked the workers' ability to send any more mass emails.

KUNM: Hundreds of prisoners sued Corizon over its medical practices in New Mexico state prisons and the company was fired by the Department of Corrections in 2016. Prisoners were sexually abused by a doctor that was hired by Corizon and there were allegations of dangerous mistreatment and neglect while Corizon was in charge of health care in state prisons. Why did Bernalillo County Commissioners unanimously vote to hire Corizon again on a $64.8 million contract?

FISHER: That is the largest contract that the county has with any contractor. So if you go back and you watch the county commissioners' meeting from last fall it seemed like a couple of commissioners, you know, wanted to have a deep discussion about Corizons' history. But they also said they didn't want to throw a wrench in the whole process. And so the commission voted unanimously, 5 to 0, on this contract. One commissioner, Adriann Barboa, told the other commissioners at the meeting that at that point in the year 10 people had died at the jail and before the vote Barboa said she was thankful contract called for an increase in medical staff. But none of the other abuses, documented lawsuits and media reports came up during the meeting before the vote on the contract. And none of the commissioners had returned my requests for comment about whether the company's medical care complies with the contract or the law. Not one.

KUNM: Has Corizon made any comment about what's happening in the jail?

FISHER: I submitted a written request to comment to Corizon I haven't heard anything back from them.

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