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The KUNM news team's coverage of the 2020 legislative session and its impacts

Inmates Sue Over Health Care In N.M. Prisons

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The company that handles medical services for prisoners in the state—Corizon Health—is facing hundreds of lawsuits filed by inmates who say care is inadequate. A series in the Santa Fe New Mexican investigates whether state officials have been ignoring warning signs or have done an inadequate job overseeing Corizon. 

Phaedra Haywood, one of the reporters who broke the story, spoke with KUNM about the real impact of poor medical care on inmates and their families.

HAYWOOD: One thing I’d like to mention is while hundreds of inmates have filed lawsuits, but what I found was that probably more than hundreds of inmates are receiving poor care. And I think they’re being affected in some of the ways that were examples in the stories, right? Like, delayed care sometimes results in conditions getting worse, becoming chronic, becoming lifetime debilitating. So I think it’s the same impact that it would have on anyone in the general public if they weren’t getting proper medical care.

KUNM: And in one of the cases that you highlighted in your coverage, you talked to a mother who’s fighting really hard for her son to get the appropriate treatment while he’s incarcerated, right?

HAYWOOD: Right. Lynn Otero. Her son has been in and out of institutions for his whole life. And she doesn’t read and write well, and I think she feels completely helpless to do anything for him, and truly believes that he should be in a mental institution and not in prison.

KUNM: In the series, you guys also bring up this particularly disturbing case of a doctor who was accused of sexually abusing inmates in Santa Rosa, and then he just got transferred to the Clayton prison, where he was accused of abusing even more inmates. So, how does that happen?

HAYWOOD: As we quoted one person in the story saying, We would have known about that had they been paying closer attention. It would have shown up in prisoner grievances, or if auditors had gone and pulled prisoners out and interviewed them, that would have been caught earlier. 

KUNM: I just wonder if part of it is this inclination not to believe people who are behind bars when they make accusations against institutions.

HAYWOOD: Several people that we spoke to mentioned that. Mr. [Carl] Takei from the ACLU called them the most voiceless population when it comes to medical care.

And you know obviously, some of these people have killed other people, and people are not sympathetic to that.

Davey Otero, who was our example, who his mother says a lot of his problems—or legal problems—draw out of behavioral problems, and  these people are very much victims of the system in the sense that they get caught up in the system, and  without advocacy, without money to hire attorneys, I think it’s very hard for them to stand up to a system that’s kind of discounting them as bad people from the beginning. Not to say that some of them are not in need of correction, but I do get a sense of frustration from these people that no one will listen to them.

KUNM: So one of the things that the series works really hard to highlight is that very little oversight or penalty in New Mexico when Corizon fails to provide adequate care or creates dangerous situations for inmates. What are some of the warning signs that the Department of Corrections or the state should have been heeding?

HAYWOOD: The state Auditor’s Office repeated findings five years in a row that they were not verifying what Corizon was delivering. I think one of the quotes from their reports was: If Corizon says there’s three nurses on the floor, they take their word for it, they don’t go out and verify that there was three nurses there that day.

KUNM: So there was a really strong editorial in the New Mexican, and it was calling on the state to really examine whether it should renew this contract with Corizon. And criticizing the lack of transparency and oversight all around. Have you gotten any response yet from state officials, from the governor, from legislators, from theattorney general, from Gregg Marcantel at the DOC?

HAYWOOD: We really haven’t had a rallying cry of public officials saying, ‘We’re going to do something.’ You know, I’m still hopeful. Perhaps give them some time to read the whole thing, because it’s long, and think about what could be done differently.


Coverage In The Santa Fe New Mexican

As inmate lawsuits and other warnings poured in, state officials allowed Corizon Health to deliver care with minimal oversight

N.M., like many states, has resisted calls for independent monitoring

Contract with state allows Corizon to keep its settlements secret

State mum on inmate health care oversight

Governor claims inmate care problems have been fixed

Editorial: State must not ignore failures in prison care


Our Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the Con Alma Health Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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