Unlocking stories behind bars

Florida is privatizing much of the state's prison healthcare, and the companies getting these big contracts have a history well worth exploring

MIAMI — With Florida embarking on an ambitious effort to privatize much of the state’s prison healthcare—the largest such undertaking in the nation—the time is ripe for journalists to take a deeper look into the history of such programs, and the companies getting massive contracts for taxpayer dollars.

Newspapers in Florida have nibbled around the edges of this complex story, and problems with privatization efforts in prisons have been investigated periodically by news outlets around the country. (There are also, of course, plenty of problems with publicly-administered jails and prisons—more on that to come). Yet despite problematic records in other states, and even in Florida, the two companies privatizing healthcare at Florida prisons—Corizon Inc. and Wexford Health Sources—have received little recent scrutiny here.

The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald statehouse bureau has written about the court fight to stop the privatization, which state workers ultimately lost in June. The Times/Herald team has also noted that Corizon, the company that is about to take over healthcare at every Florida prison north of Palm Beach, to the tune of $230 million, has faced problems with contracts “from Maine to Idaho.”

But these companies can be hard to track. Corizon was created in 2011 with the merger of Prison Health Services and Correctional Medical Services, companies that have had their own issues in the past. For example, Prison Health Services had to pay $5 million in fines and restitution in 2004 to resolve a Florida Medicaid fraud case, and has periodically lost contracts around the country because of concerns about cost overruns or problems with service. Correctional Medical Services has had its own difficulties in other states, and even in Florida. It has lost or walked away from contracts as close to home for Florida reporters as Palm Beach County.

The for-profit prison healthcare industry is hard to penetrate, with tangled relationships and complex histories. A year before Palm Beach County dumped CMS in favor of a local company, Armor Correctional Health Services, Broward County dumped another company, Wexford Health Sources, in favor of Armor (which also has a contract with Hillsborough County jails). Armor was founded by the founder of Prison Health Services, and is “politically connected,” according to a story this month by The Tampa Bay Times that looked at the challenges and high costs of jail healthcare.

Wexford hasn’t been written about as much in Florida, though it recently took over health services at nine state prisons in South Florida with, as the Tampa Bay Times wrote, “a five-year contract starting at $48 million a year.” But it has faced issues in other states. Corizon replaced Wexford in Arizona earlier this year, less than a year into Wexford’s conract, after Wexford was fined by the state and drew a class action lawsuit by the ACLU alleging “grossly inadequate medical care.”

Corizon has seen a dramatic uptick in lawsuits filed against it, but those numbers may only reflect the dramatic increase in contracts Corizon has gotten recently. A deeper look is warranted. Wexford, too, appears to be seeing an increase in lawsuits, though its name is not as unique, and easily searchable, as Corizon’s. Again, there’s an opportunity there for an enterprising reporter to dig into the data.

For-profit health companies serving prisons and jails aren’t the only piece of this puzzle that is ripe for investigation. Private companies running entire facilities have also come under scrutiny by reporters, prisoner advocates, and the Department of Justice. Last month the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted that a company running a juvenile lock-up in Georgia was singled out by a Justice Department survey that found it had the highest percentage in the country of sexual contact between the children and staffers— with 32 percent of inmates reporting such contact. The AJC noted the company, Youth Services International, has had problems in every state where it has a contract.

The Tampa Bay Times, meanwhile, has been monitoring the situation in Hernando County, north of Tampa, where three years ago the local sheriff took over jail administration from a private contractor and has managed to run the jail with fewer staffers, even though most of the private company’s employees applied for jobs. The sheriff’s major who led the take-over rejected most of those employees, telling the Times, “Frankly, I don’t understand why a few of them weren’t in jail.” (Hernando County followed the lead of Bay County, in the Panhandle, which dumped the same private contractor a few years ago in favor of public management.)

Officials in both counties say the sheriffs can save taxpayers money, while offering inmates better services. While Hernando County is still sorting out its problems with the jail, it would be interesting to know if Bay County has found that the sheriff did save taxpayers money. Both counties had to invest in infrastructure when they took over, after they claimed the private contractor failed to maintain the facilities.

Meanwhile, Escambia County—bordering Alabama—is preparing to take over its jail from its sheriff after the Department of Justice found dangerous and even unconstitutional conditions there. Until recently, for example, there was an informal policy to segregate prisoners by race.

The state of Florida is moving to privatize 30 prisons in South Florida, asking for bids this week for what will be a $285 million-plus project. The process bears watching.

Of course, public prison and jail operations also merit journalistic scrutiny, something like the enterprising work done this year by Joy Lukachick at the Chatanooga Times Free Press. Her investigation into problems at a prison in North Georgia uncovered critical issues in that facility and statewide. For example, inmates at Hays State Prison could unlock their cells with toilet paper, Lukachick found. And, they were using contraband cellphones to extort people on the outside, demanding money from the relatives of other inmates. Lukachik’s investigation started with the death of an inmate whose girlfriend said she’d received a text instructing her to send $300 or the man would be killed.

“They continued to die, as I was writing, which was horrible, but it kept me digging into it and writing more,” said Lukachick.

She was given four months to pursue problems at Hays State Prison and around the state. Lukachick has recently moved to the city government beat, but she plans to continue covering the problems at Hays State. “I think one of the reasons prison coverage has fallen off at newspapers is it’s a huge time investment,” she said. “You have to really work to get inside sources who will talk to you and really be committed to protecting them.”

She echoed what Cindy Chang, now of the Los Angeles Times, has been saying since she was the lead reporter in 2012 on a prize-winning 8-part series investigating Louisiana prisons for The Times-Picayune.

“There’s no secret to it,” Chang told me in a recent interview. “It’s just having the data and finding the people who will talk to you.”

Chang worked on the Times-Picayune investigation for a full year, uncovering an entire mini-economy based on rural sheriffs trading prisoners to keep their lock-ups full of state inmates that the state would pay them for. Chang said the big city newspapers often miss stories in rural prisons because they don’t dedicate the resources to coverage beyond their cities.

“We were the paper of New Orleans and we just didn’t have the resources statewide,” she said. “The action is in the rural areas, but it affected our people who were sent there.”

Chang said she approached investigating the prisons like she would investigating schools. “It’s a very controlled environment, but you can get tours, you can get in,” she said.

And more reporters should try.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from Susannah Nesmith and the rest of the United States Project team.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , , , ,