July 5, 2010

Behind the Bars | Prison faced regular complaints about medical care

By R. G. Dunlop rdunlop@courier-journal.com

WHEELWRIGHT, Ky. -- The state's investigation into the 2008 death of an inmate at the Otter Creek Correctional Center found a "significant lack of communication" between mental health and medical professionals and the prison's security staff.

That conclusion came as no surprise to Dr. Mark Hovee.

Hovee, a clinical psychologist who worked at Otter Creek for six years before resigning in late 2007, said in a series of interviews that he repeatedly cited his concerns about inadequate medical and mental health care at the prison to co-workers, to the state Department of Corrections and to Corrections Corp. of America -- all to no avail.

CCA, which owns the for-profit prison and operates it under a contract with the state, dismisses as a "myth" the assertion that private-prison operators offer substandard health care, according to its website. CCA argues it offers "high-quality medical treatment."

But the female inmates housed at Otter Creek from the fall of 2005 until earlier this year regularly complained about health care, including lack of access to medical treatment and shortages of prescribed drugs.

State monitors assigned to the prison and several other health-care providers who worked there echoed those concerns. A December 2008 state monitor's report said, for example, that Otter Creek's medical department had "run out of some medications" for inmates, including "critical meds."

And in June 2008 inmate Beverly Murphy, who suffered from severe physical and emotional illness, died after being allowed by Otter Creek staff to refuse medication for diabetes.

The Department of Corrections subsequently imposed a $5,000 fine on CCA for failing to report Murphy's death to the state in a timely manner -- the only instance in which the state ever penalized CCA financially for a contractual violation at Otter Creek. The state's investigation also found numerous shortcomings in the medical care Murphy received, but no sanctions were imposed.

Hovee, who is now in private practice in Eastern Kentucky, outlined his concerns in a sworn deposition he gave in connection with a lawsuit filed by the estate of Carla Meade, an Otter Creek secretary who committed suicide in the warden's office in January 2008.

He said in the deposition and in interviews that inmates were put in segregation without regard for their emotional problems and without consulting mental-health staff. He also complained about a lack of staff training regarding inmates'' mental-health issues; routine verbal abuse of inmates by prison guards; and a refusal by prison officials to give him access to dormitories at Otter Creek, an area of the prison that he said prompted repeated complaints by inmates.

"Things were going on there (at Otter Creek) that were tearing down inmates psychologically, as opposed to building them up," Hovee testified in the deposition.

A continuing issue, he said, involved his recommendations for the transfer of emotionally disturbed inmates, including some who were having "panic attacks," from open dormitories to individual cells. Hovee said he had "a stack" of such requests, but that his suggestions were mostly ignored.

Hovee said he complained without success to warden Joyce Arnold, state Department of Corrections officials in Frankfort and to CCA headquarters in Nashville.

Lisa Lamb, the department's director of communications, declined to respond when asked about Hovee's concerns.

"We consider this matter closed," Lamb said.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company would not discuss Hovee's testimony or the issues he raised.

Hovee also asserted in his deposition that a physician and an entire team from the University of Kentucky's Center for Excellence in Rural Health shared his concerns about inadequate medical and mental-health care at Otter Creek. He said they quit after their requests for change were rebuffed or ignored by CCA.

Dr. James Hurm, according to Hovee's testimony, "quit the facility because he was so aggravated and frustrated that this situation was never being dealt with."

Hurm, who is now employed at a clinic in Montana, acknowledged in a brief interview that he was deeply dissatisfied with the quality of patient care at Otter Creek. But he declined to comment further.

According to Hovee, the UK team left the prison "because the relationship between them and Otter Creek administration was so poor," because "they felt that things were run so poorly" and because health care at the prison was so inferior. That account was confirmed by another professional who formerly worked at Otter Creek.

Several members of the UK Rural Health team -- which worked at Otter Creek for about 18 months beginning in late 2005 -- said they could not discuss their concerns about the prison or their reasons for leaving without permission from the university.

UK refused to grant that permission. Amanda White Nelson, a UK spokeswoman, said the university "does not feel it is appropriate to comment at this time."

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at (502) 582-4227.