Abuse by Wellpath LLC healthcare in Pennsylvania prisons spurs lawsuits
Left: Outside the fence at SCI Phoenix, Collegeville, Pa. / Credit: Dan Gleiter, pennlive.com. | Right, from top: Inmates Daniel Newberg, John Gerholt, Sr., and Cary Abney. / PADOC

Daniel Newberg arrived at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution in Collegeville (SCI Phoenix) in January 2020. He informed the correctional officers and nurses processing his intake that he had a history of attempted suicide and would need his prescribed medications for bipolar disorder and depression.

Over the next several days, the staff ignored the obvious deterioration of Newberg’s mental state. They failed to follow procedure as outlined by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PADOC’s) contract with healthcare provider Wellpath LLC. On his sixth day there, Newberg attempted suicide by jumping from the second tier of his cell block to the concrete floor below.

Wellpath LLC is a private company that provides healthcare for Pennsylvania’s 24 state prisons. Its current contract was signed in July 2015 and will expire in August, but PADOC has the option to extend the contract. Wellpath’s main concern appears to be not the well-being of the incarcerated men at SCI Phoenix, but rather saving money by withholding appropriate medication or delaying diagnostic procedures such as x-rays and MRIs that require an off-site visit.

In addition to Newberg, two other men incarcerated at SCI Phoenix filed lawsuits in 2020 detailing substandard medical care at the facility. According to the men, their grievances and appeals are usually dismissed for punitive reasons.

Private companies providing medical care emphasize cost savings, not patient care, said Su-Ming Yeh, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP). Her nonprofit, a legal aid organization, seeks to advance the constitutional civil rights of people who are incarcerated and detained in Pennsylvania.

“If they could at least follow the standards of health care in the community, which they are supposed to do…that would be very helpful in terms of quality assurance and accountability,” Yeh said. “What we get, especially in the mental health context, is allegations or accusations that the people are malingering. They’re just making it up. They’re [viewed as] wanting to get attention rather than as a patient.”

Newberg, 34, survived his suicide attempt but suffered serious injuries, including a shattered right elbow, shattered left tibia, broken left hand/wrist/elbow, broken right foot, broken right orbital bone in the face, a broken nose, and bruised ribs. He underwent surgery on his leg, elbow, and wrist and spent a month recovering at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia. Newberg incurred $657,471 in medical bills and will need additional surgeries in the future.

In January 2022, attorney Alan Denenberg filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania representing Newberg. He’s suing PADOC, its medical director, superintendent, specific correctional officers, and Wellpath. Newberg is seeking a jury trial and compensatory and punitive damages.

Newberg’s suit describes his arrival at SCI Phoenix when he informed the staff that he takes three different prescription medications daily—Lexapro, Wellbutrin, and Seroquel—to treat bipolar disorder and depression, and that he had a history of suicide. The person on duty told Newberg that he would have to wait at least seven days to see a psychiatrist.

The staff placed him in the general population, not on suicide watch. Despite daily requests for his medication and telling the correctional officers and nurses that his condition was worsening, Newberg still had not seen a doctor nor received any medication up until the day of his suicide attempt. On that day, he asked what he could do to expedite his medication and was told by a correctional officer that “there was nothing he could do; he would just have to wait until he saw a doctor.”

Newberg’s lawsuit claims that Wellpath and SCI Phoenix employees deliberately ignored his mental health and medical needs in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Denenberg has represented plaintiffs in approximately a dozen other cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey involving incarcerated people suing the prison where they were housed and/or the healthcare provider, not only in state prisons but also in county facilities. In 2012 and 2014, a man incarcerated in Montgomery County Correctional Facility and another in Lancaster County Prison succeeded in their suicide attempts because the respective staff ignored each man’s medical history and red flags that would indicate a potential suicide risk. The prisons in both of those cases settled.

“If the defendants were not deliberately indifferent to the mental health needs of inmates in state custody, there would be far fewer deaths and attempted suicides,” Denenberg said in an interview.

After his hospital stay, Newberg returned to SCI Phoenix to serve a 30-to-60-month sentence for possession and dissemination of child pornography.

Wellpath filed two motions to dismiss Newberg’s case, claiming that they do not provide mental health services to the prison. The case is ongoing.

A history of lawsuits

Gerard “Jerry” Boyle founded Wellpath, then called Correct Care Solutions (CCS), in 2003. CCS merged with Correctional Medical Group in 2018 and the new company took the name Wellpath. Now owned by H.I.G. Capital, a multibillion-dollar private equity company, Wellpath operates in 485 adult and juvenile containment facilities across the United States, according to its website, and generates $1.26 billion in revenue.

In February, Boyle was sentenced to three years in prison for his participation in a 13-year bribery scheme involving the sheriff of Norfolk, Va.

Wellpath, and Correct Care Solutions before it, have faced numerous lawsuits stemming from improper medical care. Maine Public reported last year that an inmate died at a state facility after not receiving care for what apparently started as a toothache. In 2020, a man being held in an Oregon county jail died of a brain hemorrhage. And the FBI is investigating one of six deaths that took place from November 2021 to February 2022 at a Kentucky jail that contracts Wellpath to provide health care for its incarcerated population.

The Times Tribune reported that in 2020, a commissioner in Lackawanna County, Penn., tried to delay a pending vote that would have awarded Wellpath the contract for the county’s local jail healthcare. The commissioner was concerned about reports on Wellpath’s substandard care. A 2019 report by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project found that CCS was sued 1,395 times in federal court from 2008 to 2018. Complaints included prison conditions, medical malpractice, and wrongful death.

Cell block area at SCI Phoenix, Collegeville, Pa. Credit: Dan Gleiter, pennlive.com

When incarcerated people file lawsuits against the institutions that house them, they most often claim that prison employees or contracted employees violated their civil rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection. They also often cite the Eighth Amendment, which guarantees access to adequate medical care. However, the 1976 case of Estelle v. Gamble set the precedent of “deliberate indifference,” meaning that the plaintiffs must prove that the prison/medical staff deliberately ignored their medical needs.

John Gerholt

John Gerholt, Sr., is serving a life sentence at SCI Phoenix. He is convicted of first-degree murder for fatally shooting his wife, an act that he claims was an accident. He has been fighting his conviction since his incarceration in 2008.

Gerholt, 52, was returning to D-Block from his job as a certified peer support specialist in January 2020. As he opened the heavy metal door and entered the building, the wind swung it out of his grasp. When Gerholt grabbed for the door’s handle, it swung back the other way and violently slammed shut on his left index finger. Gerholt was taken to the medical department where the staff performed an x-ray that showed the finger was not broken.

Gerholt went back to the medical department four times because of pain and swelling in his finger.

“They said it wasn’t nothing but a scratch and I should be able to tend to it on my own. They gave me a few bandages and some tape and said to use soap and water to clean it out,” Gerholt said in an email interview.

Gerholt filed a grievance about this accident, which was denied because “grievances based upon different events must be submitted separately.” But the grievance was about only one incident: the door slamming closed on his finger. The grievance officer stated that Gerholt’s injury was the result of an unsafe act. She also said that he “should not have tried to grab a moving door by the door edge,” per case documents.

“They will try to manipulate your grievance so you’ll think it’s best to drop it altogether,” Gerholt said in an email. “Most inmates don’t have the knowledge or resources (money) to continue to fight the system, so most of them, when told their grievance is frivolous, they believe the system and discontinue their grievance.”

In August 2020, Gerholt filed a lawsuit against then-Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, claiming deliberate medical indifference in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The lawsuit was dismissed in May 2021.

Gerholt does not consider his finger to be intact, as it was prior to the accident. He said that he will sometimes drop something as light as a cup without being aware of it. At times his finger will make jumping movements of its own accord.

The aging prison population

Providing adequate health care to incarcerated individuals is a civil rights issue, but the aging prison population in Pennsylvania’s correctional institutions should also be considered. Appropriate and compassionate care is needed to meet their increasing health needs.

According to statistics provided by the PADOC, there were 37,303 people in the state’s prison as of Dec. 31, 2021 (35,286 men, 2,017 women). Nearly a quarter are serving a maximum sentence of five to 10 years; 20% are serving 10 to 20 years; 19% have a maximum sentence of 20 to 50 years; and 6% will be imprisoned for more than 50 years. Fourteen percent are serving a life sentence.

The average age of the state’s prison population is 41.7 years. Using that as a baseline, this means that at least 14,436 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s SCIs will be between the ages of 51 to 91 while serving their sentence.

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, highlighted the fact that as incarcerated people age, they need medical care for age-specific problems, like vision and hearing loss, arthritis, and dementia.

Many of these SCIs have a medical staff of five or six people for an incarcerated population of several thousand. Morgan-Kurtz explained that because of this, the staff is often handling triage patients nearly full-time, and preventative care falls to the wayside.

“You have thousands of elderly individuals who have all of the needs that you would see from someone in the outside community, on top of the fact that they’ve spent decades receiving inadequate medical care [while in prison], making those [conditions] worse,” Morgan-Kurtz said.

In the long run, ignoring preventative or even the standard health care needs of incarcerated individuals will increase costs as these people age.

Carey Abney

Carey Abney’s medical problems began in March 2016 while he was incarcerated at SCI Graterford. Abney, now 75, was experiencing pain in his abdomen and groin. While at SCI Graterford, Abney was examined by three different doctors—two of whom saw him twice.

In July 2018, all prisoners at SCI Graterford were transferred to the newly built SCI Phoenix. There, Abney was seen by one doctor and two nurses about his ongoing condition.

In total, Abney was seen by four doctors and two nurses, who prescribed 11 different medications and administered an injection of Toradol, none of which relieved his pain. The administration of this medication is called an “alternative treatment plan” in Wellpath’s protocols, and also included a hernia belt. During this time, the pain increased and expanded to his left hip, both legs, and lower back. Walking was difficult and painful.

The grievance Abney filed in November 2019 included documentation of his visits to the medical department from March 2016 to October 2019. The grievance requested an examination by an outside doctor. When the grievance was rejected, Abney then filed several appeals, first to the Superintendent of SCI Phoenix, in which prior determinations were upheld. He then appealed to the PADOC Central Office. This appeal was dismissed, stating, “You have not provided this office with required and/or legible documentation for proper review” because Abney failed to provide a copy of the appeal to the facility manager.

In appeals to these grievance denials, Abney insisted that he did indeed follow proper procedures in submitting his complaints.

It took one year before Abney was finally able to see a urology specialist in March 2017. The doctor noted difficulty urinating and a swollen prostate gland. Abney would not see the urologist again until March 2019. The doctor could not give any medical advice because Abney was supposed to have had a CT scan prior to this visit. The medical department had not yet complied with this order because it required approval from Wellpath. Abney had the scan two months after the urology visit. The next month, he was seen again by the urologist, who diagnosed a cyst on Abney’s right kidney.

In the lawsuit Abney filed in September 2020, he wrote that Mandy Sipple, the Deputy for Centralized Services, was then the acting Correctional Health Care Administrator (CHCA), a position for which she has no medical training. This position is located 100 miles away, not on-site at SCI Phoenix. Seven times in 2019, Sipple as the acting CHCA weighed in on Abney’s medical treatment.

The lawsuit cited civil rights violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Abney requested compensatory damages of $50,000 from each of the seven defendants. The defendants filed several motions to dismiss the case, followed by appeals and requests for extensions by Abney. The case was closed in May for failure to state a claim.

Today, Abney still has pain in both legs and his right flank.

DOC’s awareness of the problem

All of Pennsylvania’s state prisons have contracts with Wellpath to provide health and medical care to the people incarcerated in their facilities, according to Morgan-Kurtz at PILP. Wellpath was not always the provider, but the state has been contracting out the institutional health services for decades.

Currently, all doctors and physician assistants working in the PADOC are Wellpath employees. All nurses are employed by the state, except at two facilities where they are employed by Wellpath.

Before filing a lawsuit, an incarcerated person must first go through the DOC’s grievance process, filing grievances and appeals within their facility and, if necessary, up to the Central Administrative Office level. That process can take a while—months or even a year or more.

A representative for the PADOC said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.


Dawn Heinbach
Dawn Heinbach

Dawn Heinbach is a freelance journalist based in southeastern Pennsylvania who writes about social issues and the people affected by them. She is currently completing a master’s degree in journalism at New York University.