Citizens group forms to oversee medical care at Allegheny County Jail
February 5, 2015 12:00 AM
Allegheny County Jail
By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dissatisfied with inmate health care at the Allegheny County Jail, a group of citizens is seeking to take matters into its own hands.
The Allegheny County Jail Health Justice Project will announce its launch this afternoon outside the county courthouse, one month after the Jan. 5 death of Frank Smart, 39, who was jailed on theft and related charges a day earlier.
“Our basic goal is very straightforward and that is that all people that are in the custody of the Allegheny County Jail are to be provided timely and comprehensive health care,” said Bret Grote, project coordinator and legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center.
Tennessee-based Corizon Health, which took over the jail infirmary Sept. 1, 2013, oversaw an inmate mortality rate that was double national norms for jails. An audit by county Controller Chelsa Wagner cited continuing problems with the medical care there and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has received numerous complaints from prisoners, jail health care staff and outside providers in the last year.
Smart, of the Hill District, died at UPMC Mercy on Jan. 5. His attorney, Lee Rothman, has said it was his understanding that Smart was “complaining of needing medication or else he’d have a seizure, and they said he would have to wait until Monday” and that “it appears that there was some medical treatment done for him at the jail, but it may not have been proper.”
In an interview this week, Tomi Harris, 57, of Verona, said her son took an anti-seizure medication twice daily and called her from the jail to ask for help getting health care workers there to give him a single dose. Ms. Harris said her son had been in lockup there before with the same condition and had received the necessary medicine.
“It’s hard for me to believe that on Jan. 4 my son was here, and on Jan. 5 he was gone,” she said.
The medical examiner hasn’t determined the cause of Smart’s death and that of 62-year-old Clarence Jewett Jr. who suffered from schizophrenia and died at UPMC Mercy after 10 days in jail. He was the last of seven inmates to die at the jail in 2014.
In a statement Wednesday, Corizon wrote, “For the occurrence in question, Corizon doctors and nurses acted quickly and efficiently to provide the patient with evidence-based and appropriate medical interventions to address his health concern. Staffing levels were also in fulfillment of contract requirements.”
Witold Walczak, ACLU’s legal director in Pennsylvania, said his organization continues to get complaints jail health care.
“We recently had to call the warden’s office just to get a guy with a serious problem seen,” he said. “It worked, but prisoners shouldn’t need to use an ACLU attorney to get a sick visit. That’s a sign of a broken system.”
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