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Dying Behind Bars

Questions abound in spate of deaths at the Sonoma County jail

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POST MORTEM Sonoma County officials are investigating a trio deaths at the main county lockup in Santa Rosa. - JOSEPH BARNOFF
  • Joseph Barnoff
  • POST MORTEM Sonoma County officials are investigating a trio deaths at the main county lockup in Santa Rosa.

Barely two months after the ink dried on a five-year extension to a contract worth at least $32 million, the California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG) faces scrutiny at Sonoma County's Main Adult Detention Center after three recent deaths—including a suicide—over a period of three weeks.

County corrections officials confirmed that three people died at the Santa Rosa jail, and another sick inmate died at Sutter Hospital after being transferred there from the North County Detention Facility.

The county has promised an investigation of the deaths to determine if there's anything connecting them.

"It is an anomaly to have the incidents clustered in such a short time frame," says Sgt. Cecile Focha, public information officer with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. "In response, we are taking a progressive stance to analyze the circumstances and evaluate the current custodial and medical procedures."

Rhonda Jean Everson died Oct. 18 in a cell she'd been placed in while going through withdrawal, and was reportedly in the cell from Friday night through Sunday, when she was found dead.

Mikol Stewart was found hanged in his cell Sept. 28, and Diego Armando De Paz died in his cell Oct. 8. The fourth inmate, Charles Weathers, died at Sutter Medical Center Sept. 23 after being transferred there from the North County Detention Facility.

A review of documents raises questions about factors that may have played a role in the cluster of deaths:

• An understaffed jail where officials are forced to work up to 60 overtime hours a month.

• Gov. Brown's "realignment" solution to the state's overcrowded prison crisis, which has put additional pressure on county lockups' mental and medical-health services. Realignment was Brown's 2011 solution to a U.S. Supreme Court order to depopulate its unconstitutionally overcrowded state prisons by moving prisoners to county facilities.

• The county's for-profit medical-services provider and its eye on the bottom line and a healthy return for investors.

The Monterey-based CFMG is the largest for-profit provider of mental and medical health services in the state. According to its website, CFMG contracts with 65 detention centers in 27 counties around the state—serving 16,000 inmates while providing medical health services to roughly 90 percent of the state's local lockups.

Napa County also contracts with CFMG for medical services in its lockups. Marin County relies on county health workers to provide the services.

The state leader in outsourced inmate health services operates under the umbrella of a huge global private equity firm. In 2013, CFMG entered into a "strategic investment" with H.I.G. Capital, which has offices in San Francisco and an asset portfolio of about $17 billion. According to the Monterey Herald, it signed several jail contracts soon after the "strategic investment" with H.I.G. Capital.

One of the obvious questions for investigators is whether sick inmates pay the price for a healthy return on investment—but it's unclear whether they'll ask it.

They should. California Forensic Medical Group is in the midst of a federal lawsuit that originated in 2013. Company founder Dr. Taylor Fithian and CFMG, according to an April report in the Monterey Herald, are "the target of a high-profile federal lawsuit alleging unconstitutional and 'systematically' poor medical care at Monterey County Jail."

That story, by reporter Julia Reynolds, noted that the Monterey lawsuit was of a similar nature to a 2004 lawsuit in Yolo County that CFMG lost. In Monterey, Reynolds cited a federal court deposition given by Dr. Mike Puisis, a medical-corrections expert: "It appears that [Monterey County Jail] is systematically denying necessary medication to patients with chronic disease."

California Forensic Medical Group did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

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