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Files show past arrests, reprimands

LAWRENCEVILLE - A review of the personnel files of more than 60 employees of Prison Health Services, the contracted medical provider for the Gwinnett County Detention Center, reveals several employees have something in common with the inmates they treat - six have been arrested in the past.

The six employees, including the jail's medical director, were arrested as long ago as 1981 and as recently as this year for a range of offenses. In addition, a nurse and a certified medical assistant were accused of criminal behavior while they were still working at the jail less than three months ago. One has since been fired and the other resigned amid an internal investigation.

The personnel files were made available to the Gwinnett Daily Post by Prison Health Services in compliance with the Georgia Open Records Act.

According to background checks in the personnel files:

•Nurse Laura Lara-Sanchez was arrested July 24, 1981, by Atlanta police on charges of aggravated assault and obstructing police.

•Paramedic Carolyn Diane Laughlin (last name later changed to Spann) was arrested May 1, 2001, by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department on a charge of failure to appear.

•Nurse Katherine Eunice Early (last name later changed to Fusi) was arrested Dec. 5, 1998, and charged with family violence battery by Duluth police. She was also arrested Jan. 21, 2005, by the Cobb County Sheriff's Office and charged with nonpayment of child support.

•Dr. L. John De Albuquerque, medical director, was arrested May 29, 2004, by Atlanta police and charged with shoplifting. He was ordered into a pretrial release and diversion program.

•Agnes Kessie, a certified medical assistant, was arrested Oct. 26, 2005, and charged with delivery to an inmate of prohibited items. She allegedly provided an inmate with a cell phone and charger while working at the jail. Kessie has since been released on bond.

•Nurse Mark Addison entered a no-contest plea to a charge of simple battery on Sept. 30, 1987, in Lee County.

Many of the personnel files do not specify how the cases were disposed of. However, employees whose records merely involved juvenile convictions, a finding of not guilty or a case dismissal were not included in the above list.

Susan Morgenstern, spokeswoman for Prison Health Services, indicated there is nothing unusual about the fact that some employees have a criminal record.

"Prison Health Services conducts background investigations, as do our clients," Morgenstern said. "Under discrimination laws, the hiring decision cannot be made merely on the fact that someone has been arrested."

While his resume lists an impressive amount of supervisory experience in the field, his personnel file reveals staff psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Howard Flatlow had his medical license put on probation by the Composite Board of Medical Examiners in 1985. The sanctions were lifted in 1993.

The reason why Flatlow was on probation is not said, but the file does say Flatlow was in an "impaired physician's program" or designated as a "recovering physician."

Morgenstern said PHS does hire clinicians who have been sanctioned.

"Of course, the clinician must currently have a valid license and have completed, or be in compliance with, any ongoing oversight required by the Medical Board," Morgenstern explained.

Slip-ups, staff turnover plague medical unit

A pattern of supervisors tolerating mistakes also emerges from a study of the PHS files.

Employees who were found to be sleeping on the job, providing inmates with the wrong medication, forgetting to document patient treatments or allowing an inmate to administer their own medication were given a verbal or written reprimand. However, some employees, such as Kessie, racked up as many as seven written reprimands in less than two years without losing their jobs.

Kessie was finally fired in October upon being arrested and charged with providing an inmate with a cell phone.

A high turnover of medical staff at the jail is also evident in the documentation PHS produces. The jail is staffed with 30 full-time health care employees and seven mental health professionals, according to Stacey Kelley, spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Detention Center. A records request for the personnel files of staff currently employed and any staff members who left after Sept. 1, 2005, because of resignation or termination resulted in 63 employee files, thus 26 people left within that time frame.

PHS criticized over

handling of inmate

Prison Health Services Inc. claims to have founded the private managed correctional health care field in 1978. As the largest company of its kind in the nation, it employs more than 4,700 medical professionals and support staff across the country.

However, the company has been targeted by two lawsuits in Gwinnett in recent months. It also came under harsh criticism this week following the release of an internal investigation by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department into the death of a terminally ill inmate. Several deputies and inmates blasted PHS for its handling of the woman, who died of leukemia on Oct. 17.

Harriett Washington, 43, repeatedly asked to be taken to a hospital in the days leading up to her death, but her requests were rebuffed by staff members who instead sent her back to her cell. Washington's two cellmates and several deputies reported that she was sent to the infirmary three times between Oct. 15 and 16 only to be returned to her cell in the same condition - vomiting, experiencing high fevers and having difficulty breathing.

In a memo requesting further investigation of the incident, jail commander Lt. Col. G. Lancaster said "a staff nurse may have overlooked or misdiagnosed Ms. Washington's condition."

The final conclusion of the investigation cleared deputies of any wrongdoing, but it exposed several problems with PHS.

"If the medical staff had ordered outside treatment at Gwinnett Medical Center, as the sworn staff had urged, instead of allowing the inmate to remain in the housing unit, the end result very well may have been the same," the conclusion says.

"Had the inmate been transferred to the hospital, however, it would have eliminated the doubt surrounding the appropriateness of the treatment provided."

PHS has also been named in lawsuits by the families of two former Gwinnett County inmates who died following a struggle with deputies at the jail. The lawsuits claim poor documentation of one inmate's medical history and a lackadaisical response by staff while another inmate was in cardiac arrest contributed to their deaths.

Prison Health Services has been faulted for inmate deaths or poorly managed health care in other jurisdictions also, prompting local officials in Richland County, S.C., and in Nashville, Tenn., to discontinue their contracts with the company.

When questioned about the lawsuits last month, Morgenstern said the company has a much better track record than most state- or county-run prison and jail health care systems.

"A disproportionately high number of lawsuits originate in prisons and jails," Morgenstern said.

"As far as we can tell, our rate of being sued is about half that of prisons and jails run by governments. More than half of the lawsuits are dismissed before they go to trial. And in the majority of the ones that do go to trial, we get decisions in favor of Prison Health Services."

Stacey Kelley, spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, issued a statement on behalf of Sheriff Butch Conway this week saying he is weighing his options regarding PHS' contract with the county, which expires this year on Oct. 31. No serious talks have occurred regarding termination of the contract, Kelley said.

"I am in the process of determining what my options are regarding Prison Health Services," Conway says in the statement. "When I do, I will make a decision that is in the best interest of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, the inmates and our personnel."