New Prison Health Care Company Centurion Is No Better Than Corizon, Families Say

Lewis Prison, in Buckeye, Arizona.
Lewis Prison, in Buckeye, Arizona.
James Leonard, who is incarcerated in Lewis Prison in Buckeye, is still peeing through a catheter, the same one he's been cleaning and reusing for a few weeks now.

Despite his requests, Centurion, the new health care provider for the Arizona prison system, hasn't given him fresh catheters, Leonard's mother, Laurie Torner, said.

He has had urinary problems since March, as Phoenix New Times previously reported.

Back then, the for-profit company Corizon was in the final months of its contract with the Arizona Department of Corrections to provide medical care to inmates. It was, by just about all accounts, doing a terrible job, which is why the Department of Corrections decided in January not to renew the state's contract with Corizon.

When Centurion took over on July 1, Torner and others with family members who are sick and incarcerated in Arizona hoped that the medical care would improve.

They've been sorely disappointed.

“Nothing has changed, and everything is just as lousy,” Torner said, shortly after getting off the phone with her son on Thursday night. She described an ongoing, rocky transition of health care companies at the prison.

Leonard still suffers from a host of medical issues. Not only is he unable to urinate without a catheter, but what does come out is sometimes dark brown and foul-smelling, according to his mother. He also has pain in his ankle from pins inserted when he was 17, after a car ran over his foot.

He's not receiving any medication for the pain, Torner said, and after looking at X-rays, a Centurion provider recently told Leonard that nothing was wrong with his foot, even though Leonard can feel a pin or bone — he's not sure what — almost poking out of his skin. The provider told him that "the plate" was in place, even though Torner said no plate was ever inserted into her son's foot.
Lillian Coppess also hoped that Centurion would be different.

Her husband, Wellington Coppess, is incarcerated in the Santa Rita unit of the state prison complex in Tucson. He's been diagnosed with hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, as New Times previously reported. Most recently, he had a cancer scare.

In mid-June, Wellington Coppess was taken to this hospital, where a doctor who performed a cystoscopy seemed certain that he might have bladder cancer.

"When you hear those words from a specialist, you are almost sure it's cancer," Lillian Coppess said. For weeks they waited in agony, despite a formal request that Wellington put in to see the results, but Centurion never provided them.

It wasn't until Lillian Coppess reached out to attorneys, who were able to get those records, that they learned he had not been diagnosed with cancer. The procedure did show that he had scar tissue, probably due to catheters he'd had to use previously, when he had trouble urinating.

Meanwhile, a nurse for Centurion told Wellington Coppess during a visit last week that he no longer had cirrhosis or hepatitis C, Lillian Coppess said in disbelief. The nurse's statement was based on lab work done in April, when Corizon was still in charge, that "according to them show[s] he's healed," she said. Lillian Coppess has not seen those medical results, but plans to request a copy. 

Previous medical records, which New Times has viewed, show that her husband was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2009, and cirrhosis of the liver in 2013, neither of which, according to the Coppesses, he was ever treated for.

"He still hasn't gotten attention," Lillian Coppess said.

This is not the first time the Coppesses have gone through this kind of transition. In 2013, the state abruptly terminated its contract with Wexford Health Sources, tapping Corizon instead.

click to enlarge Lillian and Wellington Coppess in 2012. - LILLIAN COPPESS
Lillian and Wellington Coppess in 2012.
Lillian Coppess
"We were there when Wexford changed to Corizon," Lillian Coppess said. "It was the same thing. For two to three months, they didn't know anything."

To her, the switch to Centurion feels like a repeat of the chaos that ensued following Corizon's takeover.

She said she'd called Centurion in the first two weeks of July, as the company was taking over, to try to get records for her husband.

"The response I got was that they were still in the process of transferring everything to the new offices, working on software updates. They suggested I call at a later time," she said

She described a confusing and futile process of trying to contact prison staff, such as when she needs to advocate for or put in a request for her husband.

"You call the local prison, but it's hard to identify who works for which organization," Lillian Coppess said. "They have extensions for medical, so the people that answer the phone are physically in the area, but probably getting paid by Centurion."

Whenever someone answers the phone, they tell her that her husband needs to submit an HNR — a health needs request — Coppess said.

As if anticipating these complaints, Centurion CEO Steven Wheeler published an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star on July 15, writing that "it will take time to fully implement a new integrated approach across all 10 ADC correctional facilities — and there will inevitably be bumps and obstacles along the way."

He concluded, "There is a lot of work to be done, and the process will not be perfect, but Centurion is committed to staying the course and providing quality correctional health care in Arizona."

In response to detailed questions about staffing from New Times, a spokesperson for Centurion referred to Wheeler's op-ed, saying it "identifies challenges faced when we enter a new state and our plans to address them."

click to enlarge James Leonard in August 2016. - LAURIE TORNER
James Leonard in August 2016.
Laurie Torner
"One of our main focuses is meeting the challenge of hiring and retaining health care professionals in the face of an industry-wide shortage," the spokesperson added.

In its bid for the state's contract, Centurion promised to "improv[e] staffing, medical leadership, programming, compliance, and community linkages." It said it would uphold the state's mandate that "all ADC inmates, regardless of status, shall have unimpeded access to correctional health services."

It's not clear how many new providers or staff members Centurion has hired since July, or what kind of systemic changes they're carrying out, if any, so that people like Coppess and Leonard aren't waiting months to find out whether or not they have cancer, or cleaning and reusing single-use catheters simply to urinate.

According to Leonard, Torner said, the nurses and doctors in the prison have not changed. Her son seems resigned to a fate of receiving minimal medical care until his release, which is scheduled for March 2021.

“He’s like, 'It’s just going to be the way it is until I can get out of here,'” Torner said. She herself had called and left a message with Centurion on Thursday, to advocate for her son, but no one called back.

Medical administrative staff, at least in one prison complex, appear to be all the same.

"All of us here at the prison here, right now, are all Centurion. Corizon left the whole prison here,” said a staffer in Tucson, who was reached by phone and who requested anonymity.

The staffer could only speak about employees who worked in administration, not frontline providers like nurses and doctors, but said that nothing had changed with the arrival of the new company: Everyone used to work for Corizon. Now, "we're all working for Centurion," the staffer said.

In response to detailed questions from New Times, Andrew Wilder, a Department of Corrections spokesperson, said only that, "The transition of services has been successful. We recommend reaching out to Centurion with questions about their hiring or other aspects of the transition of services."