Rush City prison medical contractor sued

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2012 - 11:18 PM

Corizon and the state Corrections Department are named in the suit arising from an inmate's death after multiple seizures in 2010.

The private contractor that provides medical care in Minnesota prisons has been sued for wrongful death in the case of an inmate who died from seizure complications in 2010 at the prison in Rush City.

The suit, filed in federal court in Minneapolis, alleges that a doctor employed by Corizon Inc. initially failed to order an ambulance when Xavius Scullark-Johnson went into seizures late one night, and that the inmate received negligent care again after an ambulance crew was turned away by a prison nurse the next morning.

Tennessee-based Corizon, which will receive $28 million this year to care for the state's 9,200 inmates, joins the Minnesota Department of Corrections as a second defendant in a case that throws a spotlight on the quality of medical care received by inmates.

"Defendants left Mr. Scullark-Johnson lying in his cell by himself after he had suffered numerous seizures, was disoriented, unable to control his bodily functions and had injured himself from seizures," according to the suit, which was filed by Minneapolis attorney Jordan Kushner, who represents Scullark-Johnson's family.

A Corizon spokesperson declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Corrections officials have said that inmates in Minnesota receive the "community standard'' of medical care required by law -- similar to the level of care received by most Minnesotans.

In addition to the allegations against the Corizon physician, the suit alleges that at least three Corrections Department nurses and four prison officers failed to provide adequate care while Scullark-Johnson suffered as many as six seizures in a four- to five-hour period.

Previously undisclosed records show that the overnight corrections officers responsible for Scullark-Johnson's care failed to document his quickly deteriorating condition, even though they went so far as to remove his cellmate to segregation after he repeatedly complained that an ambulance should be ordered.

The lawsuit reopens questions raised last month in a Star Tribune investigation which found that since 2000, at least nine state prisoners - including Scullark-Johnson - have died after medical care was denied or delayed and another 21 have suffered serious or critical injury.

Staffing arrangements set out in the state's contract with Corizon played a role in many of those death and injury cases, the newspaper found. Under that contract, Corizon doctors and physicians' assistants exit prison grounds each weekday by 4 p.m., leaving just one on-call doctor to assess the condition of prisoners statewide by telephone. In addition, the state-employed nurses end their shifts by 11 p.m., leaving minimally trained corrections guards as the front-line medical responders.

That is exactly the kind of situation that played out when Scullark-Johnson, 27, of St. Paul, struggled for his life on a June night two years ago.

It is not disputed that Dr. Sharyn Barney initially did not call for an ambulance as Skullark-Johnson suffered a series of seizures the night she was assigned to be the on-call physician.

In a statement given to Corrections investigators after the incident, Barney, who regularly works out of the prison in Moose Lake, defended her actions and said she was not provided with enough information from prison officers about Scullark-Johnson's condition.

But a Corrections lieutenant told investigators he informed Barney that officers knew Scullark-Johnson had at least three seizures and that the cellmate reported that Scullark-Johnson had suffered at least six to seven seizures. Barney told him to simply let Scullark-Johnson sleep rather than call for an ambulance, according to court records.

Only after an officer complained about an hour later that Scullark-Johnson was not improving did Barney agree that an ambulance should be called, according to documents previously obtained by the newspaper. When the ambulance arrived, however, a nurse turned it away, citing "protocols.''

When the nurse returned an hour later and found Scullark-Johnson face down in his cell and unresponsive, the ambulance crew returned and took him to Fairview Lakes Hospital in nearby Wyoming. He was declared brain dead that night and taken off life support the following day.

A trial date for the case has not been set.

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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