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Jail picks supervisor for health provider

LAWRENCEVILLE - In the wake of a highly publicized inmate death and complaints about poor health care at the Gwinnett County Detention Center, a high-ranking deputy has been tasked with overseeing the jail's contracted medical staff.

Maj. Jim Hogan will supervise employees of Prison Health Services, the contracted medical provider for the jail, on a full-time basis beginning Monday. Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said his department pays Prison Health Services (PHS) about $6 million a year to provide health care for inmates.

"I think we should have had a medical monitor before now," Conway said. "I think with the size of that contract that it's prudent for us to have someone on staff monitor the quality of the work."

Hogan will serve as the primary point of contact for PHS management, monitoring medical service issues, meeting daily with staffers, making policy recommendations, reviewing grievances and providing regular reports to the sheriff. Hogan is a 26-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department. He has been second in command over jail administration since 1999.

Both the Sheriff's Department and PHS came under scrutiny following the death of a 43-year-old female inmate who was awaiting trial on a cocaine possession charge on Oct. 17. Harriett Washington had previously been diagnosed with myeloid leukemia.

An internal investigation at the Sheriff's Department revealed Washington asked several times to be hospitalized in the days leading up to her death, but her pleadings were rebuffed by medical staff. Washington's cellmates and deputies who were in the housing unit said they witnessed Washington vomiting repeatedly, experiencing dizziness, acting delirious and having difficulty breathing.

She was taken to the jail's medical unit at least three times in the two days before her death, but none of her visits were documented as required, according to the internal investigation. Each time Washington was sent back to her cell as her health continued to deteriorate.

After Washington died, at least five other inmates and a former PHS mental health counselor came forward with complaints about botched medications, lapses in medical documentation, patient neglect and staff indifference.

Hogan said Monday he is up to the challenge of overseeing PHS.

"I'm really excited about it. It's something new," Hogan said, adding he is unruffled by the recent flap over jail health care. "I'm not apprehensive. I don't have anything to prove other than objectivity."

More PHS employees

depart following death

Conway said he has no reason to believe PHS isn't providing adequate services to inmates. However, he admitted Washington's death influenced his decision to create a watchdog position.

"I would have to say it's got some play in it; I can't say how much," Conway said.

"Obviously in the Harriett Washington case, that wasn't handled as well as it could've been, but PHS took steps to remedy that situation."

Several medical staff members charged with caring for Washington have left PHS employment for a variety of reasons in recent months.

Nurse Brian Woodard resigned Oct. 24 in the midst of an internal investigation into several stolen amphetamine pills that had been prescribed for an inmate, according to personnel files obtained by the Gwinnett Daily Post via the Georgia Open Records Act.

Nurse Jim Johnson, the infirmary desk nurse, was fired shortly after Washington's death, Conway said.

In addition, the 84-year-old medical director, Dr. John De Albuquerque, is no longer employed at the jail, Conway said.

The Gwinnett Daily Post reported in January that Albuquerque had been arrested by Atlanta Police on May 29, 2004, on a shoplifting charge, and five other employees also had arrest records. A judge ordered Albuquerque into a pretrial release and diversion program.

Susan Morgenstern, spokeswoman for Prison Health Services, referred questions about Albuquerque and Johnson to the company's corporate attorney. He had not responded to the inquiries as of press time Monday.

Lawsuit in the works, lawyer says

Jonathan P. Sexton, an attorney for Washington's family, said he plans to file a lawsuit against PHS and Gwinnett County for Washington's death.

"They let the woman die like a dog in there," Sexton said.

"I don't care what she was in there for, she's certainly entitled to health care whether or not she's got a common cold or leukemia like she had. For them to give her Pepto-Bismol and a Tylenol and say no one could do anything for her is not only PHS' fault, but we're suing the county as well."

Sexton said the sheriff's decision to create a supervisory position for PHS staff could be a step in the right direction, if Hogan is given some training in hospital procedures and administration. Sexton said deputies should intervene when they see medical staff are handling a situation improperly.

"There needs to somebody to throw in a trump card there. If it's this guy, and he gets some kind of training, then it's going to be a good idea,"

Sexton said.