It wasn't long ago that that institutional food giant Aramark sat alone as the undisputed poster child for all that's wrong with privatizing prison functions.
There's not much worse than a company that starves inmates, and — when it does feed them — sends rotten chicken tacos, rat turds, garbage, and maggots down the chow line.
Except, perhaps, for one that is killing and injuring them. Corizon, the nation's largest for-profit prison health care provider, is earning a reputation elsewhere in the nation for its poor service, and a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit charges that a Lapeer-based Corizon doctor, Joseph Burtch, sexually abused at least four prisoners at the St. Louis Correctional Facility near Saginaw.
According to a complaint filed with the court, Burtch repeatedly rubbed his crotch against inmates' legs during checkups. He would get fully aroused, then keep going.
A judge recently denied a request from Burtch's attorneys to dismiss the case. The judge in the motion to dismiss that the doctor's actions were "not objectively harmful" or "sufficiently serious," and the case is expected to move forward for a trial this fall.
Though Michigan State Police officers interviewed Burtch in 2014 and didn't file charges, the Michigan Department of Corrections found enough evidence against the doctor that it revoked his security clearance. Prisoners who filed the lawsuit are charging a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights and asking for monetary damages, says Michigan State University College of Law's Civil Rights Clinic attorney Dan Manville, who is representing the plaintiffs.
He said Burtch is working for a company that provides health care to seniors in care facilities, and Corizon offered the doctor a job at a prison in a different state after the Michigan Department of Corrections revoked his security clearance here.
A prisoner who alleged to have been sexually assaulted by Burtch in the same way in 2007 isn't part of the lawsuit, and another prisoner who made allegations but has since been released didn't partake in the suit. The complaints leveled against Burtch in 2007 weren't fully investigated. But when two more prisoners filed the same charges in 2014 — after the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 — the MDOC and state police investigated.
"When you have prisoners who weren't in the prison at the same time saying this happened, then there could be a problem," Manville tells Metro Times.
The patients, of course, were in a difficult position, figuratively and literally speaking. Manville said they were being treated for severe headaches and cancer, and feared that they wouldn't receive medical treatment were they to file grievances. Physical self-defense is also a bad option. It's prisoners' word against that of Burtch, and pushing or threatening him is an assault that would extend prisoners' stay. Manville says Burtch had prisoners in a nearly defenseless position, and he knew it.
"What do you do?" Manville says. "If you assault the doctor, then you get more time. One [inmate] was about to get out and would have lost parole, so he was afraid."
In the complaint, Manville wrote that inmates felt "fear, anger, and confusion" and "helpless" as the doctor molested them. He charges one inmate, who was sexually abused as a child, suffered emotional trauma over Burtch's assault, and the parole board denied early release because the inmate could no longer participate in group therapy.
Burtch's attorney didn't respond to a request for comment, nor did Corizon.
Attorneys, prisoners, and advocates have long contended that private medical companies typically provide substandard care and put prisoners' health in danger. However, the issues in Michigan lacked the drama of the food service problems that caught the media's attention, led to public outrage, and eventually resulted in the state ending its contract with Aramark.
But a look at Corizon's record in other states is alarming, to put it mildly. Prison Legal News documented the company's problems in a 2014 article, highlighting gross incompetence that killed inmates and put their health at serious risk.
Among the highlights: In 2014, Corizon nurses in Arizona were accused of contaminating insulin vials, thus exposing dozens of inmates to HIV and hepatitis. In Florida, inmates successfully sued the company for refusing to send them to the hospital, which left one inmate paralyzed in 2007 and another dead in 2009.
In Idaho, a 2012 report found "prisoners who were terminally ill or in long-term care were sometimes left in soiled linens, given inadequate pain medication, and went for long periods without food or water," and an inmate with chronic heart disease died of a heart attack after Corizon failed to treat him.
In 2013 in Iowa, Corizon nurses ignored a pregnant female prisoner who was left to give birth on the prison floor. Other inmates delivered the baby.
And the list goes on.
What's clear is the issue isn't just a Corizon a problem — it's a privatization problem. Even though the state ended its contract with Aramark, similar food service problems persist with the new private food provider, and that's leading to protests and a destabilization of prison yards.
Private companies are brought in to save money, and in health care, there's one way to do so — dramatically cut the level of care. That appears to include hiring employees who might have more than a checkup on their minds.