In November, after I was arrested while reporting on the General Strike in Oakland, Alameda County sheriffs and a nurse who didn’t identify herself made me pee into a cup. This was in an open cell, as other sheriffs, nurses and inmates walked by. I tried to do it quickly. I wanted to get it over with. I wanted to cooperate.
But I also wanted to know why I was being forced to take a pregnancy test upon my booking for a cite and release misdemeanor which technically only need involve the police giving me a ticket. I never would’ve guessed at the time that a Tennessee-based for-profit privately held national corporation was asking for my urine.
Neither the sheriffs nor the nurse would tell me why they needed to know the contents of my uterus. In the following months, others subjected to this test said they were told they needed to take the test because the county jail in Oakland, Glen Dyer, is “not equipped” with the health services to hold pregnant women over night. I was booked into Dyer between 4 and 5 a.m. on November 3, transferred to Santa Rita, the only county jail allowed to hold women, around 10 a.m. I was finally released around 6 p.m. I guess it depends on your definition of “overnight.”
A few weeks ago, I went back to Santa Rita Jail for the first time since my stay there in November, this time not in plastic handcuffs, instead accompanied by Berkeley City Council member Linda Maio. Maio reached out after hearing my talk of my jail experience on KPFA, particularly the sexual harassment surrounding the searches of women; she arranged the meeting, but asked me to lead the questioning.
We met with six sheriffs deputies charged with operating the county jail system, including the undersheriff of the entire department, Rich Lucia, and the department’s legal counsel. We discussed many things about county jail treatment that day — the meeting lasted nearly two hours. On some issues, the sheriffs were nonplussed; on others, they didn’t even want to meet my eye. But on pregnancy tests, they were emphatic, confident.
“That’s Corizon policy, that’s not our policy,” they said. Their legal counsel agreed, and expressed his disappointment that they had not asked a Corizon official to attend the meeting as well.
Corizon is the third-party health care provider for both of Alameda County’s jails, and more than 400 other jails across the country. They have their own item in the budget, a four year contract worth more than $120 million and rising every year.
Corizon is less than a year old. It formed as the result of a merger last June between Valitás Health Services, Inc., the parent company of Correctional Medical Services, Inc., and America Service Group Inc., the parent company of PHS Correctional Healthcare, Inc., cornering the prison health care market in the U.S. Their promotional video for this new venture is posted above.
In this country, in this county, we are now beyond private companies providing public services — the county jails have outsourced their health services for years, to the tune of more than $30 million each year. But now we also allow them to dictate the policies of those services. Corizon does those pregnancy tests in order to protect Corizon from potential litigation from inmates. I can understand that — if I were Corizon, I’d want to downgrade my liability too, especially since if I were Corizon I’d be facing more than 20 other lawsuits right now.
I never thought, when I was peeing into that cup at 5:30 a.m., that six months later I’d be digging up Corizon’s paper trail all over Alameda County. I’ll be wrapping up this story after May Day.
I wasn’t sure if I should post this piece of the story now or wait until the full story was finished. I think, though, that Alameda County residents and those who might be seeing the insides of its jails soon (May Day eve!) deserve to know exactly who is making them pee into those cups, and why.
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