Illinois legislators looking at $1.4 billion prison contract

April 4, 2013

WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer
Doris Green’s husband died while in prison. She’s worked in correctional health care but still couldn’t get anyone in the department of corrections to give her husband the medication prescribed by doctors.

If anyone knows how to navigate their way through prison health care, it’s Doris Green. She says she spent three decades working in correctional health care in Illinois with the Aids Foundation of Chicago. But then her husband, who was serving time, got sick.

“I did everything,” said Green at an Illinois state house committee hearing on prison health care Thursday. “I’ve been involved in corrections for over 30 years and I thought I knew everybody. I had some people on speed dial that I can call to get medical help for people that’s in prison, but I did not know how broke the system was until my husband was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer and prostate cancer.”

Green told legislators that a doctor prescribed hormone shots for her husband and he never got those shots despite her efforts.

Legislators spent two hours hearing testimony about Wexford Health Sources, a private health care company with a $1.4 billion contract to provide care to inmates. According to a report last year by the prison watchdog John Howard Association, no one in the state is providing oversight to ensure that inmates are getting the care that taxpayers are already paying for.

WBEZ has also documented numerous cases of inmates who have health needs that have gone unaddressed, including Christopher Clingingsmith, a man whose jaw was broken at the East Moline prison. He told the doctor there but the doctor did nothing. After eight weeks Clingingsmith was transferred to another prison where doctors diagnosed him as having a broken jaw. By that time Clingingsmith says he had lost 70 pounds and he had to be taken to a hospital where they performed a surgery in which his jaw was rebroken.  Metal plates and screws were put into into his face.

Prison nurses also testified at Thursday’s hearing. Mary Johnson spent 12 years as a registered nurse at the Graham Correctional Center about 50 miles south of Springfield, Illinois. Johnson was a state employee, though many of the other medical employees work for Wexford, the private health care company.

Johnson said Wexford unreasonably limits their medical supplies. Some issues are seemingly minor. “We routinely run out of cups for the med-line, which the vendor is to provide,” said Johnson but she added, “When that happens, then the Department of Corrections has provided those cups at a cost to them.” In other words, Illinois has paid Wexford to provide those cups, but when they run out the state ends up providing the cups anyway.

Johnson and other nurses say there are a lot of costs that the private company is supposed to cover but they don’t. Johnson said they are often short on diapers for inmates who are incontinent. A more serious concern was when the prison’s EKG machine was out of order for 9 months.

Representative Greg Harris, D-Chicago, is pushing for a third party to audit the health care being provided in the prisons. Wexford says they welcome such oversight.