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$8.3M Jail Death Settlement Sets Record in Calif.

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on February 12, 2015 8:38 AM

An $8.3 million settlement over an inmate's death at a California jail is the largest single civil rights wrongful death settlement in the state's history, lawyers say.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors and Corizon Health Inc. (which provides jail medical services to the county) have agreed to make substantial inmate care changes and pay $8.3 million to the family of Martin Harrison, who died two days after Santa Rita Jail deputies beat and used a Taser to subdue him, the Bay Area News Group reports.

Part of the settlement mandates that Corizon only staff registered nurses (RNs) at its facilities, as opposed to using licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) as it had done previously. The financial portion of the settlement will go to Harrison's four adult children.

The Death of a Sick Inmate

According to attorneys for his family, Harrison was going through extreme alcohol withdrawal that can cause tremors and hallucinations following his August 2010 arrest for jaywalking. The sides differ on whether Harrison alerted the prison medical staff of his condition. But after lashing out in his isolation cell, Harrison was beaten by 10 deputies attempting to subdue him. He later died of cardiac arrest.

Corizon had been using LVNs (as opposed to RNs) as part of its intake medical assessments for facilities in four California counties. (RNs typically have two- or three-year degrees while most LVNs complete a one-year certificate program.) While using LVNs allegedly saved Corizon 35 percent in costs, attorneys for Harrison's family say that a qualified RN could have diagnosed his condition and hospitalized him or given him proper medication.

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern contends Corizon has done "a fantastic job" for the county. And the company asserts that there have been no deaths due to alcohol withdrawal in 500,000 previous intake screenings.

Ramifications of the Settlement

As part of the settlement, Corizon will replace all LVNs working in its facilities with RNs. Corizon maintains it was complying with state law when it employed LVNs, but it has agreed to employ only RNs moving forward, and provide additional health care training for corrections officers, including how to identify the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

As the largest prison health care provider in the country, it remains unclear how the California settlement will affect Corizon's operations in other states.

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