DUBLIN, California. – Hector Hernandez Jr. died of pneumonia while incarcerated in Santa Rita Prison and his family believe he would still be alive if he had received the proper medical care.
“He told me in Santa Rita that if an inmate suffers from something – illness or accident, whatever it is, it takes a long time for medical care to arrive,” said his father, Hector Hernandez. Sr.
He added that his son’s death was also caused by an untreated infection.
The 39-year-old was battling mental illness and was on suicidal watch before his death in May 2019. Other illnesses had lasted for months, and his family’s lawyers said he had received only ‘ibuprofen and had never been referred to a specialist.
MPs and nurses were supposed to monitor him regularly, and they didn’t, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed last year against Alameda County and Wellpath, the prison’s medical provider.
“I used to pray to God,” said Hernandez Sr. “I was like, ‘My God, please take care of my son inside the prison. I hope that ‘He’ll never need medical care inside. I hope he never seeks medical attention because he’s going to meet you, my God.’ “
Health problems persist
Five years after Alameda County abandoned prison health care provider Corizon Health and hired Wellpath to take over, problems and deaths persist.
A KTVU investigation six years ago revealed questionable medical decisions, oversight gaps and allegations of staff and supply shortages that prompted the county to become Wellpath in 2016.
Hernandez Sr.’s complaints – and similar new allegations about prison health care protocols – raise questions about what, if anything, has changed.
In the past eight months, a hotline for those incarcerated in Santa Rita in Dublin has received 1,000 calls; nearly half of the callers complained of some type of medical negligence, lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild said.
“Most of the calls were about Wellpath and the complaints ranged from minor to major,” said Lina Garcia-Schmidt, coordinator of the Santa Rita prison hotline.
Callers complained that they were not given inhalers in a timely manner, that they were not given medication – sometimes for days – and that they were denied help with drug or alcohol addiction.
Although Wellpath is not responsible for mental health care, Santa Rita was also warned last month by the United States Attorney General following a Department of Justice report which concluded that the practices mental health issues and the overuse of solitary confinement are unconstitutional. Alameda County has backed off, but if nothing changes, it could face a federal lawsuit.
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern (left) walks with investigative reporter Brooks Jarosz to Santa Rita Jail.
Despite lawsuits, sheriff calls health care in Santa Rita “exceptional”
Wellpath has been sued nearly 500 times in the past five years across the country, according to an online review of the lawsuits.
But Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern is backing Wellpath, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and is touting himself as “one of the largest for-profit health care providers for prisoners.”
“Wellpath is known throughout the industry as a very caring and compassionate health care provider to inmates,” said Ahern. “They proved it with us and things have changed.”
Nurses visit detainees three times a day, Ahern said, and anyone who wishes to be medically examined is put on a list and “seen as soon as possible”.
Ahern said the care they provided was “exceptional”.
“We have been evaluated by a number of entities that give us 100% ratings for our health care, opioid care and overall safety from the American Corrections Association,” he said.
Ahern admits that the prison has at times been “out of policy and out of procedure” triggering legal action, but blames a lack of funding and staff for the missteps.
“We are asking people to do things that are impossible in difficult times,” he said.
For his part, Wellpath President Kip Hallman has supported the care of his business.
“Alameda County – Santa Rita Prison is one of our triple crown accredited sites, and we are proud of our work there, alongside the dedicated professionals in Alameda County,” a- he said in a statement.
Just this week, Wellpath and the Sheriff’s Office were praised in a report by an independent consultant for an organized, comprehensive and well-executed COVID-19 epidemic control plan involving “one of the best.” .
Allegations of medical failures are not new at Santa Rita prison
For nearly 30 years, Corizon had held Alameda County’s largest public contract, raising more than $ 264 million to provide medical care to inmates starting in 2008.
Amid pressure, complaints and lawsuits, offers were launched for a new health care provider, earning Wellpath, formerly California Forensic Medical Group, a three-year, $ 135 million contract. . Although county supervisors have chosen to renew Wellpath to oversee inmate health care, many of the same types of complaints continue.
One of these complaints comes from Randy Harris, 59, incarcerated in Santa Rita since 2017 for car theft.
Harris, who suffers from grand mal seizures, said he repeatedly requested to be housed in a lower level cell so that he would not fall, which he did.
Randy Harris wants to leave Santa Rita for a doctor’s appointment.
He alleges that several deputies responded to this request, telling him that it would be “too much work” to move him and told him “have a crisis, then we will talk about it”.
“It’s not right. I asked to be in a lower cell,” Harris told a judge last month. “It’s not good. I thought about suicide.”
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office filed documents in court saying Harris had a history of drug addiction and no one had seen him fall when he complained previously. County attorneys said Wellpath staff believed Harris had fabricated many of his medical ailments, saying one of his falls appeared to be bogus and a matter of “bad behavior.”
However, Stanford Hospital records show he was also diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a painful narrowing of spaces in the spine that can put pressure on nerves.
“Since his injury for the past six months, Randy has maintained that the stretches recommended by Wellpath and Tylenol were totally insufficient to manage his condition and he frequently wakes up screaming in pain,” Garcia-Schmidt said. “Santa Rita Prison and Wellpath were unwilling to recommend Randy to an orthopedic surgeon or neurosurgeon. He is unable to get a second opinion so he is stuck in limbo where he is in tremendous pain every day.”
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Amy Sekany last month ordered Harris to be taken to an orthopedic surgeon in Kaiser to determine his next course of action. But Alameda County attorneys objected to the doctor’s visit, saying they were only made aware of the order after it was made and the judge lacked jurisdiction to make this decision. A future hearing on the subject has been set.
Seeking justice for others at Santa Rita prison
Hernandez Sr. doesn’t want what happened to his son to happen to anyone else.
And he said that as a Salvadoran he finds a “shame” that in the United States of America people in prison cannot get the health care they deserve, hoping that will change soon.
Hector Hernandez Sr. mourns the death of his son in Santa Rita prison in 2019.
His lawyers said he complained to the sheriff’s department but received no response. They claim he later learned that his son had never seen a doctor and was ill for weeks before his death.
“We are talking here about corporate greed,” said Fulvio Cajina, civil rights lawyer. “He [Hector Hernandez Jr.] reported he had medical issues and Santa Rita and the staff simply ignored him. “
Although Sheriff Ahern was unable to deal with this case specifically, he admitted that it was difficult to resolve all of the issues some inmates faced, but said all inmates were given a medical examination upon arrival at Santa Rita.
Hernandez Sr. said the trial was a last resort to seek justice for his son and in the hope that conditions would improve for those held in one of the largest prisons in the country.
“I wish for him that he had never been exposed to any type of mediocre medical treatment like he had in Santa Rita,” said Hernandez Sr .. “And I want them to stop thinking about the benefits you can do in prison. Treat inmates as human beings. They are not incarcerated animals. “
Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at [email protected] or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez