Politics & Government

Kansas prison contractor’s negligence forced removal of woman’s colon, suit alleges

Topeka Correctional Facility
Topeka Correctional Facility Kansas Department of Corrections

A former Kansas inmate alleges in a federal lawsuit that the state’s corrections department and its health care provider didn’t get her medication she needed for months despite numerous requests and complaints. She eventually had to have much of her colon removed.

The lawsuit is the latest against Kansas Department of Corrections contractor Corizon Health alleging mistreatment. Another says Corizon did nothing while a brain fungus led to an inmate’s death.

Kansas pays Corizon about $70 million a year under a contract signed in 2013, with payments expected to increase to $83 million as the prison population increases in the next five years.

The lawsuit, filed this month by former inmate Sarah Loretta Cook, alleges malpractice and negligence against Corizon as well as the Department of Corrections. Corizon and its employees failed to act “in the face overwhelming evidence of plaintiff’s profuse bleeding, complaints and rapidly decompensating medical condition,” the complaint says.

“They don’t care who dies, how they die or what they do to you. And I’m not going to stand still and sit here and go, ‘Isn’t that nice?” Cook said in an interview with The Eagle, accompanied by her attorney.

Corizon spokeswoman Martha Harbin said in an email: “We are dedicated to high quality care for our patients, but cannot comment on active litigation or a patient’s personal health information.”

The Department of Corrections would not comment on the lawsuit. Speaking to lawmakers earlier this year, agency officials said they have a strong grievance process for medical care and emphasized that there have been no successful lawsuits against the agency or Corizon over its medical care in Kansas since the contract began.

A colostomy

Cook was transferred to the Topeka Correctional Facility from the Wyandotte Detention Center on May 3, 2016, to finish her sentence. Department of Corrections records show convictions on drug-related charges.

Cook, 68, who has had gastrointestinal conditions for decades, had used Rowasa enemas and a bland diet to control flare-ups. Typically, she would recover within four days, but her doctors had warned her that if she didn’t take steps to control her conditions, her bowel could perforate with potentially fatal results, the complaint says.

At the time she was taken to Topeka Correctional, her condition had begun to flare up. She requested Rowasa as well as a bland diet on “numerous occasions,” the complaint said. Portions of her medical history included in the complaint note her reporting intestinal problems and rectal bleeding.

On May 25, a doctor ordered Rowasa for Cook. But nearly a month later, she hadn't received the medication, according to the complaint.

She received the medication a couple days before her release from prison on July 5, the complaint says.

Outside prison, Cook continued taking the medication but her condition worsened.

On July 20, 2016, doctors found she had a perforated bowel. Surgeons then removed much of her colon.

Cook uses a colostomy bag now. During the interview, she lifted up her shirt to show the bag strapped to her stomach.

She said doctors told her enough of her colon remains that a second surgery may be possible to repair it and allow her to stop using the bag. She said she wants to continue healing for now but is hopeful she can have the surgery eventually.

Asked what daily life has been like since part of her colon was removed, she answered: “You learn.” After pausing a few seconds, she said: “horrible.”

48 lawsuits

Cook’s lawsuit follows a federal lawsuit filed in October that alleges a brain fungus slowly killed a 27-year-old Hutchinson inmate over several months and that Corizon did nothing to stop it.

The lawsuit alleges Corizon staff reported multiple times that they thought the inmate, Marques Davis, was faking illness.

Officials with the Kansas Department of Corrections spoke about the agency’s contract with Corizon during a January legislative hearing. They emphasized that KU Medical Center provides oversight of health care in the prison system and said they have a strong grievance process for inmates dissatisfied with their care.

“What good does the grievance policy inside of the prison do somebody who’s been let out?” said Cook’s attorney, Brian McCallister.

“In any system, you’re going to have grievances and you’re going to have lawsuits. You just are,” said Viola Riggin, the agency’s director of health care services.

Forty-eight lawsuits have been filed since 2014 involving medical care in Kansas prisons, the agency said in January. None has resulted in findings or settlements against the agency or Corizon, Riggin said. Eighteen suits have been dismissed; 30 are still pending.

Riggin described the number of lawsuits as “very low.”

Kansas assessed more than $3.4 million in penalties against Corizon during the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years, according to information from the Department of Corrections provided at the January hearing. Riggin said then that most of the penalties were related to staffing; Kansas fines Corizon whenever it falls below certain staffing thresholds.

Across the country, Corizon has faced numerous complaints and scrutiny over its care. Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico and New York City have parted ways with the company.

Corizon is among the largest for-profit prison healthcare providers in the country. The company was sued for medical malpractice 660 times in a five-year period, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Harbin has previously said the number of lawsuits against the company is not high, given that the company’s employees see millions of patients each year.

Contributing: Andy Marso of The Kansas City Star