The company that oversees medical and mental health services for Luzerne County’s prison was on the hot seat at this week’s county council meeting in light of four female inmate deaths since June.
County council proposed the public presentation by Kansas-based Correct Care Solutions after the first three inmate deaths in June and July, but the urgency increased with the Jan. 9 suicide of 21-year-old prisoner Hailey Povisil.
”I have some real concerns about the service you’re providing, gentlemen,” council Vice Chairman Eugene Kelleher told Correct Care representatives Donald Doherty and Jerome Norton.
The company can’t publicly discuss specifics about the inmate deaths due to medical confidentiality, noted Doherty.
“We do take this seriously and personally. Whenever something happens like this, we’re devastated,” he said.
At a prior administration’s recommendation, council approved a three-year contract with Correct Care in March 2015 as part of a partial outsourcing plan promised to save the county approximately $600,000 annually.
Under the contract, Correct Care is paid around $2.1 million annually to provide a range of services and personnel, including a medical and mental health team to perform inmate screening within eight hours of booking, a health assessment during the first 10 days of incarceration, and examinations of ill inmates.
The company must arrange and fund on-site suicide intervention, therapy, evaluations and other mental health services plus provide at least four hours of weekly focus on women’s health issues, according to the contract posted at www.luzernecounty.org.
Prescription and non-prescription drugs, emergency ambulance transport and other medical treatment also are included in the package.
The county continues to employ 13 unionized licensed practical nurses at the prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre and the nearby minimum offenders building on Reichard Street, but they take direction from Correct Care, according to the county. While county staffers can refer inmates to suicide watch, the company determines when they are removed from heightened monitoring.
Correct Care’s contract expires at the end of March and contains two optional renewals for one year each.
Kelleher questioned if Correct Care is complying with a contract requirement to provide the required number of registered nurses.
The contract calls for registered nurses to be on duty 24/7. However, the company is not penalized for vacancies unless they exceed 30 days, when a credit is applied, officials said.
County Correctional Services Division Head Mark Rockovich told council there have been cases where one of the registered nurse positions was vacant for more than 30 days. Rockovich said the contract predates his July 2016 hiring as division head, and he would not have negotiated a contract allowing vacancies.
Kelleher said the company should be supplying the required number of registered nurses and other staff every day.
Norton, a New York-based psychologist who serves as Correct Care’s regional behavioral health manager, cited figures on the opioid epidemic and rising inmate suicide rates and mental health conditions nationwide.
He said his company, which serves about 300 prisons nationwide, attempts to detect and mitigate inmate risk.
“We cannot, unfortunately, predict behavior in 100 percent of the cases. That’s the challenge — to do everything we can,” Norton said.
He highlighted several new initiatives his company plans at the county prison:
• In anticipation of a possible contract renewal, the company is hiring another full-time mental health professional.
• Company clinical staffers will start using computer pads and visiting inmates instead of making the inmates report to them. The change should increase face-to-face visits by reducing paperwork and burden on prison staff to coordinate the movement of inmates inside the five-story prison.
• Monitoring of inmate patients by video is under consideration to increase medical observation.
• The company has recommended changes in housing layout to maximize the number of inmates directly accessible to staff for monitoring and observation, particularly those undergoing difficult opioid withdrawal without the aid of prescribed medication.
• Interns and increased communication with agencies involved in the county prison system also are planned.
“We’re really just doing everything we can to bring in more resources from all directions,” Norton said.
Doherty, Correct Care’s regional vice president, said prisons here and elsewhere typically have three times as many mental health patients as hospitals.
Norton said 75 percent of women and 63 percent of men in local prisons are impacted by mental health issues. Approximately one-third of the county prison population is on medication to treat psychiatric conditions, he said.
“Corrections — and this is a sad comment — is now the number one provider of mental health care in the country,” he said.
Kelleher raised questions about why the company’s changes were not implemented sooner.
Councilwoman Sheila Saidman asked if inmates are evaluated midstream because drug withdrawal, disturbing visits and other problems may impact their mental state.
Norton said the company relies primarily on inmates reaching out or staff referrals because inmates still have a right to privacy even though they are incarcerated. Most inmates in custody for months have bad visits, phone calls and court appearances, he said.
Councilman Stephen A. Urban asked why inmates in withdrawal can’t be sent to a secure detoxification facility before incarceration so they are not lodged in prison “cold turkey.”
Rockovich said there are no secure detoxification facilities in the area that prohibit patients from leaving.
Kelleher plans to request a closed-door executive session to discuss other Correct Care contractual concerns.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley said the matter will remain at the forefront because of the deaths and looming contract renewal decision.
“We look forward to working with you but also look forward to having proper services,” he told the company representatives.
County Manager C. David Pedri told council the administration has recruited psychiatric professionals to perform an independent review of the four deaths.
Wilkes-Barre resident Collyn Hinchey thanked council members for seeking answers, but she said the presentation did not reassure her the company has made changes that will support prison staff and inmates to prevent more suicides. Hinchey started attending council meetings in response to the deaths.
In addition to Povisil, two other inmates died from hangings deemed suicides last year — Brooke Griesing on June 8 and Tricia Cooper on July 25. The July 7 death of Joan Rosengrant was ruled accidental; it was caused by the combined effect of prescription drugs complicated by her unspecified physical condition, officials determined.
“It seems like the impeding contract renewal of these critical services presents an opportune moment for their review, and I look forward to the continued involvement of council in the upcoming months,” Hinchey said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.