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AG suit: Armor denied Nassau jail inmates adequate medical care

This aerial view shows the Nassau County Jail

This aerial view shows the Nassau County Jail in East Meadow on June 20, 2016 Photo Credit: FlyingDogPhotos.com/Kevin P. Coughlin

New York’s attorney general says the private medical vendor at Nassau County’s jail has repeatedly denied inmates adequate care — including medication, mental health services and hospital treatment — leading to sometimes deadly consequences and defrauding taxpayers who have funded woefully deficient services.

The allegations against Armor Correctional Health Services emerged Monday as state officials filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Manhattan after a probe that followed a series of inmate custody deaths since the Florida-based company won its first $11-million-a-year Nassau contract in mid-2011.

The lawsuit seeks an order banning Armor from bidding on any future jail medical contracts in New York. It also demands the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee Armor’s compliance with its Nassau contract that ends in mid-2017, financial penalties, and a judgment saying the company illegally took public funds. In the civil action, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office accuses Armor of “persistent illegal conduct,” saying the company “has routinely failed to address the medical needs of inmates” and violated its contract by continuing to collect full payment from the county.

Armor spokeswoman Teresa Estefan said in a prepared statement the company hasn’t had time to review the complaint, “but any allegation that Armor has failed to provide quality correctional medical care at the facility is simply false,” and the company “intends to vigorously defend” against the lawsuit.

“Armor has responded to the attorney general’s office’s numerous requests for documents, repeatedly has presented its personnel to answer any and all of the attorney general’s questions, and repeatedly has offered to give the attorney general’s office a tour of the facility so that it could see first-hand the quality of care provided by Armor,” Estefan said. “However, the attorney general’s office has refused to visit the facility. Further, Armor has provided a substantial amount of data that simply is contradictory to any claim of deficient patient care. Armor is proud of its work caring for the inmates at the Nassau County facility, and will continue to do so as long as Nassau County wants it to do so.”

Spokesmen for County Executive Edward Mangano and Sheriff Michael Sposato didn’t respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Starting in late 2015, state investigators subpoenaed Armor records, while also using the company’s Nassau contract, inmate testimony, state oversight agency reports and the medical charts of inmates who died, to build a portrait of a for-profit operation they allege sacrifices patient care in favor of protecting its bottom line.

Schneiderman’s office said Monday that Newsday’s coverage of allegations regarding inmate medical care deficiencies assisted state investigators as they put together their case.

In the suit, authorities allege Armor’s lapses in care also included frequently failing to answer inmate “sick call requests” within three days as required and not providing adequate diagnostic services or referrals to specialists. The company also failed to regularly check on equipment that includes a “crash cart” for medical emergencies, didn’t keep accurate and complete medical records, and didn’t properly staff the jail, according to the suit.

Officials said Nassau’s jail housed an average of 1,188 inmates in 2015. Some inmates are serving jail sentences and others are in custody awaiting trial.

State officials said12 inmates have died in the Nassau facility’s custody since Armor wonthe health care contract — one in 2011, two in 2012, one in 2013, two in 2014, one in 2015 and five so far this year.

Records show the state Commission of Correction already has found Armor provided inadequate care in connection with the deaths of five of those inmates since 2011.

Those fatalities were: the 2011 death of Roy Nordstrom, 47; the 2012 death of Bartholomew Ryan, 32; the 2014 deaths of John Gleeson, 40, and Kevin Brown, 47, and the 2015 death of Antonio Marinaccio Jr., 53. The findings on the five custody deaths, along with two 2012 fatalities in Niagara County — where Armor held a jail contract from late 2012 to late 2015 — provide a window into Armor’s overall shortcomings in care, Schneiderman’s office says.

“The records relating to each of these deaths demonstrate an array of deeply problematic practices, including Armor’s failure to provide timely medical care in response to inmate needs, provide adequate medical and psychiatric evaluations, perform diagnostic tests and timely dispense needed prescription drugs, refer inmates to specialist care where medically necessary, and carry out orders set forth by clinicians” the lawsuit says.

In addition, the suit also alleges lapses in medical care in the cases of William Satchell and Samuel Lawrence, two of the five Nassau inmates who died this year. All five deaths in 2016, including a July 5 fatality, remain under investigation.

Four of the five 2016 deaths also “raise serious concerns about the care being delivered by Armor,” according to the state attorney general’s office.

Schneiderman’s office found Satchell, 63, a retired janitor from Hempstead who took medication for high blood pressure and went to jail March 17, didn’t get medication until March 20.

Records show Satchell’s breathing was shallow that day, he was unresponsive to verbal stimuli, and Armor personnel couldn’t get a blood pressure reading. But while an Armor official called 911, Armor didn’t transfer Satchell to a hospital, instead putting him in the jail infirmary, Schneiderman’s office says.

On March 21, a test showed Satchell was diabetic, had an EKG reading that came back as “abnormal,” and Armor put him on insulin, according to Schneiderman’s office.

Two days later, Satchell was again found unresponsive and sent to a hospital, where he died of a heart attack on March 24, the state attorney general’s office said.

Schneiderman’s office alleges in the lawsuit that Armor failed to do a routine screening on Satchell upon intake, leading to a delay in his diabetes treatment.

The lawsuit also says Lawrence, 63, who died March 7 after being found unresponsive in his cell, had filed frequent sick call requests related to pain from a groin hernia. While an Armor official asked that Lawrence be sent off-site for a surgical consult, Armor’s medical director denied the request, according to Schneiderman’s office.

The lawsuit also accuses Armor of failing to dispense necessary medications to inmates, using as one example a former inmate’s recollection of how the jail’s medical director told him he “had been prescribed too many medications” on the outside and wouldn’t get them behind bars.

That same man, Billy Hine, 58, of East Meadow, told Newsday in a recent interview that he suffers from conditions that include a traumatic brain injury, chronic back pain, knee problems, bipolar disorder and depression, as well as health challenges connected to gastric bypass surgery. He said his doctor prescribed fentanyl patches for pain before he went to jail, but the best he could sometimes get while incarcerated was Tylenol with codeine. Hine said when he realized he wasn’t going to get proper care, he tried to make the most of the pain patch he’d worn on his way into jail.

“You don’t go from suffering chronic pain to all of a sudden having nothing and not suffer from it,” said Hine, who was jailed for a felony DWI conviction. “When that patch wore off after five days, I actually sucked on it to get whatever I could from it.”

Hine said he saved jail paperwork showing he sometimes filed up to five sick calls before Armor would pay attention.

“I cried myself to sleep under my pillow,” he said. “Sometimes you’re in such pain, you can’t do anything else about it. So you’re whimpering like a beaten dog in a corner.”

Hine said he fell in a jail shower, lost consciousness and suffered a concussion after not getting his medication for a couple of days in March 2015. But Armor refused to send him to the hospital until the next day, and denied him some medication again after his return to the jail, Schneiderman’s office says.

The lawsuit also details the account of a 49-year-old inmate from Albertson with a history of heart problems who put in multiple sick call requests on a weekly basis to complain about chest pain and numbness in an arm and hand. Schneiderman’s office says that inmate had to file a federal lawsuit to get care — a year after he’d first requested medical attention.

By then, stress test results showed the man needed an emergency angioplasty.

In a letter to Newsday, that inmate recently called Armor a “criminal corporation that should not be allowed to work in any jail.” Federal court records show Armor is fighting the man’s lawsuit.

The state attorney general’s office found that while Armor did barely half of the self-audits required to monitor its performance under Nassau’s contract, the company also “seriously underperformed” in fixing problems its staff found after failing about half of its own audits.

The claim from Schneiderman’s office also points out that Nassau County has never imposed a financial penalty on Armor, despite the company’s “serial failings” and wording in its contract setting specific fees for each missed performance benchmark.

Armor also never did of any of the yearly reviews or semi-annual reviews in areas including access to care and emergency care as required by contract, according to the lawsuit.

Despite that, the county renewed Armor’s contract in 2013 and 2015 for two-year periods, even while the company’s initial contract had limited contract extensions to two one-year renewals, the lawsuit says.

Some Democratic county legislators earlier this year called for U.S. Department of Justice officials to investigate what they called an “ongoing civil rights crisis” involving inadequate jail care.

The lawmakers also demanded an end to Armor’s contract.

The contract says the county can end the current agreement for any reason upon a month’s written notice, for “cause” immediately upon the contractor’s receipt of written notice, and upon written agreement of both parties.

But Mangano’s administration said after the state revealed its findings in the 2014 inmate deaths, that a legal review showed Armor’s contract couldn’t be canceled “without subjecting taxpayers to significant liability as the allegations have not been substantiated to date.”

In March, administration officials put out a request for proposals for a new jail health care contract, on which Armor said it planned to submit a bid.

In all, the lawsuit from Schneiderman’s office estimates Armor’s owed damages and penalties at close to $6 million, including about $3.7 million alone for allegedly failing to answer sick call requests on time.

“It seems to me like a serious wake-up call for Nassau County,” Legis. Laura Curran (D-Baldwin), the ranking Democrat on the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, said of the lawsuit. “The county is responsible for inmates and we need all the information we can get about what’s going on with Armor. It looks like this will shed some light.”

Legal advocates for families of some of the inmates who died in custody applauded news of the state attorney general taking action against Armor.

“It’s about time someone’s stepping in,” said Mineola attorney James Pascarella, who represents the Gleeson family in a federal lawsuit against the county and Armor.

He said for Gleeson’s family, the attorney general’s action will mean “he’s not completely forgotten about and someone’s going to take the reins and try to make sure this doesn’t happen to other families.”

Westbury attorney Harry Demiris Jr., who represents Marinaccio’s family in a federal suit against the county and Armor, also heralded the law enforcement agency’s filing as positive news.

“I’m elated that the attorney general’s office sees the severity of Armor’s deficiencies in health care and are not permitting Armor to continue to turn a blind eye to inmates’ obvious medical needs for the sake of saving the county money and Armor making a profit,” he said.

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