SPECIAL REPORT: Georgia prison healthcare faces little independent oversight

CSRA News

NewsChannel 6 has told you about issues with security, abuse, and healthcare at Georgia’s flagship prison hospital in Grovetown, Augusta State Medical Prison. So who’s being held accountable?

We’ve been digging deeper into the rights inmates have when it comes to healthcare, whether they’re being met, and how much it’s costing taxpayers.

Augusta University is well-known for all the good it does in the community, its medical research, and its healthcare facilities. But it has a lesser-known branch that is responsible for $185 million taxpayer dollars and the medical care of more than 50,000 people: Georgia Correctional Healthcare.

Dr. Tim Young worked as a physician under Georgia Correctional Healthcare for 16 years at Augusta State Medical Prison.

“That is a lucrative contract for Augusta University. It is probably in a lot of people’s best interests that that contract stays open and the money keeps flowing uninterrupted. And the less noise that is made, the better,” Young said.

He says GCHC has been complicit in poor healthcare for inmates for years– so poor that people die from treatable issues because they aren’t seen in time. He believes it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights.

A few months ago, a court also came to that conclusion in the case of Mike Tarver. A convicted murderer, he won a $550,000 settlement from the state of Georgia after a small cut on his leg resulted in amputation. Georgia Correctional Healthcare stood by the doctor he accused of deliberate indifference. She later resigned.

It was an unlikely case– filed from prison by hand with no attorney. However, Tarver’s lawsuit proceeded, and he eventually ended up hiring Augusta attorney Mike Brown.

“Mike had done and extraordinarily good job of going through the law library, finding the right cases, and had done an exceptional job of litigating the case himself,” Brown said.

But usually cases like this don’t get very far. Brown says aside from an internal grievance process, inmates don’t have much recourse besides federal court. 

“It’s not the only [recourse], but it’s the primary,” Brown said. “It’s very difficult to access any of the other avenues.”

“There’s nobody overseeing what the GDC is doing in providing healthcare,” Brown said. 

Georgia Correctional Healthcare pays a non-profit physicians’ advocacy group called the Medical Association of Georgia to audit its facilities every three years. But these audits aren’t mandatory– they’re voluntary. And it’s unclear if there are any consequences for failing. 

“As far as I know, they answer to no one,” Young said.

In 2017, the audit of Augusta State Medical Prison found that the medical staff was at 65 percent capacity. It still passed. In 2013, the Medical Association of Georgia gave the prison three chances to pass over more than six months. 

Some of the issues included insufficient emergency plans, insufficient inmate death reviews, and insufficient records of drugs.

“Prison health’s a mess,” Brown said. “It’s in terrible condition.”

Young places the blame for the facility’s problems at the feet of administrators, both at at the Department of Corrections and Georgia Correctional Healthcare. He says as the organizations are top-heavy– paying administrators six figure salaries, while inmates languish. Georgia Correctional Healthcare confirms that they just hired a new administrator making around $101,000 a year in the wake of allegations of poor conditions at ASMP. 

Brown says the fault lies with us, as a society– in how many people we incarcerate, and how little money we spend on their basic human needs.

“I hold people who are down there at the legislature, ignoring this problem, ignoring other problems, responsible,” Brown said. 

Georgia Correctional Healthcare says it meets the state’s obligation to provide the appropriate level of health care to Georgia’s inmate population. A human rights rally for Georgia inmates is planned for Friday at the state capitol.

Count on NewsChannel 6 to keep you updated as this story unfolds.

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