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Another Jail Inmate Dies

Michael Amsler Photo Courtesy of
Sonoma County Independent

November 9, 1999:

"We're still gonna have jail deaths. I can guarantee it."

Sheriff Jim Piccinini to Board of Supervisors

January 7, 2000:
Phillip Medina dies only hours after being moved from the jail to Sutter Hospital. When admitted to the hospital, Medina already had widespread infection through all body systems and organs were beginning to fail.

Another name was carved into the jail's deadly wall of shame when Phillip Medina died at Sutter Hospital on January 7, 2000. Medina was transferred to Sutter from the jail, where he had reportedly been sick for over a week. Though jail officials blame the death on a virulent strain of flu, hospital records show that by the time Phillip Medina reached the hospital he was already septic, with generalized infection throughout his body and organs beginning to fail. We can't help but wonder if the jail just waited too long to get medical attention.

Community action has undoubtedly forced some important changes in the jail — both the assistant sheriff at the helm and the county's jail medical services contractor have been replaced and California Medical Association's accreditation revoked. Still, Phillip Medina's death is a clear message that the changes aren't yet enough, and in some cases we may even be going backwards. Here's what we mean ...

CMS Gets the Ax
Finally bowing to relentless public pressure, the Board of Supervisors canceled the contract with Correctional Medical Services and on February 1, 2000 California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG) took over medical services at the jail. While we can hope that exchanging one giant, outside corporation for another might make things a little better, disturbing news from inside and from other communities that contract with CFMG doesn't bode well.

Warning Signs from CFMG
Several jail employees report that the first thing CFMG did was to get rid of family nurse practitioners, the backbone of the jail's medical delivery system. We have confirmed that several experienced medical workers have been fired.

When we met with him last September, supervisor Mike Reilly proudly displayed a list of bonus incentives (including a $2,000 sign-on bonus) the county would be offering to try to lure and keep competent medical staff at the jail. Reilly's hit was that under-staffing was what had led to the deaths, and that these incentives were the solution.

Interesting, then, that an analysis presented to the Board of Supervisors on December 1, 1999 showed that CFMG's wage and benefits package for jail staff, far from making the job more attractive, instead represented a $3 to $5 per-hour pay cut for full-time staff!

The new contract decimated employee retirement options, suspended health insurance for the 3-6 month transition period, and dropped dental, vision and disability insurance, all previously provided under the CMS contract. This is only likely to worsen the problem of finding and keeping competent medical staff, and is sure to result in more death and suffering for inmates.

And yet another alarming revelation comes from Mendocino County, where CFMG has handled jail medical services for some years. In 1997, CFMG sued activists with the Mendocino-Lake Human Rights Monitoring Project. In what's called a S.L.A.P.P. suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), CFMG attempted to intimidate and silence organizers who had brought the medical complaints of jail inmates before the county Board of Supervisors -- exactly the same type of information brought by local activists that forced our supervisors to can Correctional Medical Services.

Obviously, these are all things that make CFMG worth watching.

One Struggle, Many Fronts
Wrongful death lawsuits were filed against the county on behalf of the families of Drue Harris, Carolyn Telzrow, and Joanie Holmes. The Harris lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality, and the Holmes suit was settled in 2000 for an undisclosed amount of money. The Telzrow case is still pending, with a Sonoma County trial likely later this year.


© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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