Gwinnett Jail Death Lawsuit Highlights Correctional Health Care

Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated Press


The daughter of an inmate who died of pneumonia in the Gwinnett County jail is suing the sheriff, health care employees and the private health provider in charge of her care.

Like us on Facebook

According to the lawsuit, Denise Forte’s death in 2015 could have been prevented with adequate medical care. The 53-year-old had been at the Gwinnett County jail for more than a year on drug charges. Her daughter’s lawyer, Mark Begnaud, said Forte had a history of lung disease and was ignored as her symptoms started getting worse.

He said after an initial visit with a nurse, “they didn’t even bring her up to evaluate her. They simply told her ‘No. We won’t see you now. You’re on the list to be seen by a doctor this week.’”

She died before that could happen. Begnaud said jail records show the medical director there knew Forte’s condition was serious.

“She should have been admitted and immediately seen by a doctor, based on the symptoms she was presenting at the time,” he said.   

At the time, Gwinnett County had a contract with Corizon Health, the country’s largest private correctional health service provider.

“There have been thousands of lawsuits,” said Maria Morris, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center. She’s suing the Alabama Department of Corrections over its health care system and has looked into the way Corizon operates in a number of states. She said what happened to Forte fits into a larger pattern.

“If there’s any way to avoid sending people out, they don’t send people out to specialists in the community,” Morris said.

She said Corizon also has a record of using staff who aren’t qualified for the jobs they’re performing. Gwinnett County ended its contract with Corizon last year, though the county didn’t respond when asked why.

Both Fulton and Chatham counties cut ties with the company in recent years. For now, Corizon says it’s not operating in Georgia.

Morris said regardless of who holds these contracts or how they’re written, jail and prison officials need to keep an eye on the medical care happening on the ground.  

“If they’re not doing it, they’re violating the Constitution, and they’re also violating their contract, in most situations,” she said.

She said lawsuits like Forte’s are often the only way that oversight happens.

In a statement from Corizon, the company said, “Our doctors and nurses work every day in extremely difficult settings to provide the best possible medical care for the patients in our care.”