Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Ellen Durkin holds up a quote from Florence Nightingale (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Nurses, social workers, and other medical staff in Connecticut’s Department of Corrections huddled under a tent in the pouring rain Tuesday to bring attention to what they say are unsafe staffing levels.

Across the street from Hartford Correctional Center, a handful of nurses, doctors and other members of SEIU 1199 New England voiced their concern about their own safety and the safety of the inmate population based on current staffing levels.

“It’s a powder keg waiting to blow,” Ellen Durko, a registered nurse, who works at Northern Correctional Institute, said.

She said there’s currently no nurse on the night shift at Carl Robinson in Enfield and there are inmates who require large doses of insulin. There are 1,200 inmates at that facility and no nurse on duty between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“Jesus has taken the wheel for that facility,” Durkin said.

Dr. Ricardo Ruiz, a physician at Cheshire Correctional Institute, said he’s in charge of the health and well-being for 1,500 inmates at that facility.

“The attrition of jobs due to retirements, loss of jobs to other competitive state agencies, aging of the prison population with its associated increase in morbidity and mortality. All in the face of diminishing financial support is a formula for disaster,” Ruiz said.

Kelly Schabot, a clinical social worker at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution, said mental health staff on second shift are often required to cover several facilities due to a lack of staffing. A facility that was once staffed with six social workers 10 years ago is now staffed with one, Schabot said.

Janet Short, a registered nurse at Garner Correctional Institution, said her jobs involves people down who have attempted suicide. She said she’s also responsible for putting people back together after they “pretty much cut their arm or leg off.”

She said they can’t continue to work without the support of the administration.

What’s dangerous about the lack of staff?

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Becky Simonsen, an SEIU 1199 organizer (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

“It’s dangerous to work 24 hours straight without relief,” Short said. “Who is able to do that?”

She said workers are finishing an eight hour shift and then being asked to drive 20 miles to another facility to complete another “mandatory” shift.

“It is irresponsible not to make staffing a priority,” Short said. “It is dangerous not to have staffing a priority.”

It’s also costly.

A consultant’s report found that “legal costs may soon rival California” and legal costs on health care will likely grow $5 million annually.

The Corrections Department budget for health services was cut from $80 million to $72 million.

Another consultant’s report, which the Department of Correction refuses to release to the public claiming attorney-client privilege, details 25 cases of medical neglect that could potentially be referred for litigation.

There’s also the cost of overtime. Mandatory overtime is paid at “double time” and increases the costs for staffing three shifts by 60 percent.

Less than a month into the new fiscal year there was a $14 million deficiency in staffing in the department and a $9 million deficiency in the inmate medical account. However, at the same time the new budget assumes $8 million in savings as soon as the state finds someone to help run inmate medical care.

There are a total of 120 health staff vacancies across all Correction Department facilities, according to the union. That’s 24 percent fewer than the positions needed.

A statement from the Correction Department said the claim that there are 120 positions are needed for a full complement of healthcare staff was brought to our attention yesterday.  “We ask the union to provide further details (including justifications) for their assessment of staffing requirements,” a Correction Department spokesman, said in a statement.

The Correction Department after more than two decades of contracting with the University of Connecticut Health Center to provide the services recently took back ownership of offender healthcare services on July 1.

In the transition, which is still ongoing, the Department of Correction inherited a total of 31 healthcare staff member vacancies, with an additional 23 positions open due to retirement, resignation or transfer to another state agency.

At present there are a total of 49 approved positions, for which candidates are actively interviewing for.  Additionally, another 21 healthcare related positions have been approved and will be posted publicly, according to the department.

“We continue to actively evaluate our healthcare delivery approach in order to best serve the needs of the offenders,” Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple said.  “This is especially important when considering the trend of increased substance abuse; ongoing behavioral health needs; the need for and high cost of Hepatitis C treatment; and an aging offender population.”

David Pickus, president of SEIU 1199, said he’s heard the department is “working on it,” but the longer they take to work on it means “less care” at a greater cost to the state. There have already been a handful of medical malpractice and negligence claims filed against the department.

Last month, the state settled a case with Wayne World, an inmate whose skin cancer went untreated for years, for $1.3 million.

One of World’s attorneys, Ken Krayeske, has also filed a lawsuit against the state for failing to provide an inmate with access to expensive medication that would cure his hepatitis C.

Krayeske’s lawsuit revealed that one of the manufacturers of the new Hepatitis C treatment — Gilead Sciences — offered the Correction Department $300,000 grant to test all prisoners for the virus. But the money was never obtained following disagreements among state officials about who would handle the testing.

Since Connecticut doesn’t test for the virus when people enter prison, it’s unknown how many inmates may have hepatitis C.

“Healthcare staff play a vital role in not only the health of offenders, but in the wellbeing and safety of the overall correctional facility as well,” Semple said.  “I am grateful for the professional and compassionate services they provide, and am committed to creating a world-class healthcare delivery model.”

At the end of July, less than a month after the transition of inmate medical care to the Corrections Department, Semple said they should have a better idea of what the new system will look like by January 2019 when he’s able to hire a chief operating officer to oversee three directors: one for medical care, one for behavioral health, and one for addiction treatment.

He said he’s working as quickly as possible because he might not have a job when a new gubernatorial administration takes office in January.

Nurses protest lack of staffing at Correction Department

Posted by on Tuesday, September 18, 2018