Crime & Courts

Fungus destroyed Kansas inmate’s brain while contractor did nothing, suit says

2017: Corrections boss talks about Kansas staffing issues

(FILE VIDEO-- JULY 13, 2017) Kansas Secretary of Corrections, Joe Norwood, spoke at El Dorado Correctional Facility about an earlier incident that occurred at the prison.
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(FILE VIDEO-- JULY 13, 2017) Kansas Secretary of Corrections, Joe Norwood, spoke at El Dorado Correctional Facility about an earlier incident that occurred at the prison.

Marques Davis was in the infirmary at Hutchinson Correctional Facility on Dec. 27, 2016, back with the same symptoms he’d been complaining of for months, including numbness and weakness in his legs.

But on that day there was something new.

“It feels like something is eating my brain,” Davis told Corizon Health employees who staff the prison infirmary.

According to a lawsuit filed in federal court Monday, something was infecting his brain: a fungus that slowly killed the 27-year-old over the next four months, as he pleaded for help while his vision blurred, his speech slurred and he became so disoriented that he drank his own urine.

Kansas City attorney Leland Dempsey filed the suit on behalf of Davis’ mother and his daughter, who both live in Wichita. It names as defendants Corizon and 14 of the company’s employees: three doctors and 11 nurses.

“No amount of money in the world could ever replace my child, but somebody needs to be held accountable and this need not to happen to anybody else,” Davis’ mother, Shermaine Walker, said in a phone interview Monday.

Corizon has a contract with the Kansas Department of Corrections to provide health care throughout the state’s prison system.

“We express our most sincere sympathies to the loved ones of Mr. Davis,” Corizon spokeswoman Martha Harbin said in a prepared statement. “While we would very much like to share the details of the care we provided to Mr. Davis, we are prohibited from doing so by patient privacy laws.”

Corizon was the nation’s largest for-profit provider of prison health care as of last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is suing the state of Alabama over Corizon’s practices there. It handled about 15 percent of the U.S. inmate population at 534 correctional facilities in 27 states, including Kansas and Missouri.

Corizon was sued for malpractice 660 times in a five-year period, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Walker said her son was a happy, energetic child but his life turned after he got involved in a gang as a teen. At the time of his death he had served eight years in prison for several crimes, including attempted murder.

“It doesn’t matter why he ended up there,” Walker said. “He was a human being.”

Walker’s suit alleges that Corizon employees failed to help her son until April 12, when he was taken to Hutchinson Regional Medical Center after he suffered a heart attack.

A CT scan at the hospital revealed “dramatic swelling of the brain sufficient to force the upper part of the brain down into the lower part of the brain.”

The next day Davis was declared brain-dead and taken off life support. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be advanced granulomatous meningoencephalitis, a form of meningitis that Dempsey said was caused by the Candida Albicans fungus.

According to a 2010 article in the International Journal of Surgery, that type of infection is rare in people with no underlying medical condition, but is more prevalent in places with unsanitary conditions and in people who have had a long course of antibiotics. It’s difficult to diagnose but it usually responds well to intravenous treatment with an anti-fungal called Amphotericin B.

Walker said she talked to her son on the phone almost daily and visited him regularly while he was in prison. As his condition deteriorated, she tried repeatedly to get Corizon staff to help him, with no results, she said.

“This was an everyday thing for me, calling over there telling them about things he’s complaining to me about but also the things I’m seeing,” Walker said. “He’s losing weight tremendously, he’s sweating, his skin color is changing.”

The lawsuit alleges that Corizon staff reported multiple times that they thought he was faking illness. The Kansas Department of Corrections website lists more than 40 disciplinary infractions for Davis while he was in prison, most of them before he got sick.

An infirmary report from the week before Davis’ death faults him for refusing food and failing to get out of bed to use the toilet. Instead, he urinated in his water pitcher, which he then drank out of “time and again.”

“If we come up with a major muscular (diagnosis) like MS (multiple sclerosis) or other lifelong condition, I am afraid he will not fight it or do what he can do to improve his life, he will just allow himself to succumb to the disease,” the report says. “At this point he is not doing for himself the things he could do.”

Corizon mostly deals in managed care contracts, which means states pay it a flat rate per prisoner for medical care and the company keeps any savings. The Kansas contract, signed in 2013, currently pays out about $70 million a year and is projected to rise to about $83 million within the next five years as the prison population increases.

The company has lost business in several other states in the last five years.

Tennessee decided to jettison Corizon after its contract came up for renewal in 2013 even though the company is based in the state and submitted a lower bid than the contractor the state selected.

Pennsylvania, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and New Mexico have also dropped Corizon since then and New York City declined to renew Corizon’s Rikers Island contract in part because of 15 medical deaths there between 2009 and 2015.

Harbin said Corizon’s leadership has since changed and the company is growing again.

“We’ve had a number of clients award contracts to us or extend existing contracts this year,” Harbin said.

The Kansas contract with Corizon was for 18 months to start, with optional renewals every two years for up to eight additional years.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, said the Corizon suit is one more troubling mark for a Kansas corrections system already struggling with understaffed prisons and inmate unrest.

“This sounds like a very serious situation to me,” Hensley said. “Obviously the state’s not named as a party (in the lawsuit) but should consider dropping this contractor at the earliest possible date.”

Andy Marso: 816-234-4055, @andymarso

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