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Advocacy groups call on District to reject prison contract

Eighty-six civil rights, labor and community activist organizations called on the D.C. Council on Tuesday to reject a health-care contract that they said could worsen conditions inside the city's jail.

The Council is expected to vote next week on a $66 million contract that would give Corizon Health the authority to manage care for inmates at Washington’s Central Detention Facility and Correctional Treatment Facility. An earlier vote on the contract was delayed in December after some council members raised concerns about Corizon’s record in other state prisons.

The company acknowledges they have amassed more than 1,300 lawsuits across eight states in the past five years, but that by its account Unity Health Care has amassed more lawsuits per inmate. Unity's chief executive called those allegations not true.

The 86 groups signing Tuesday’s letter, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the country’s largest federation of unions, called Corizon’s record “abysmal” and said the company had been sued repeatedly “because of horrific deaths and permanent injuries to men and women in their care.”

The groups urged local lawmakers to vote “no” on the contract, and to take “the necessary steps to award a provider with a record of providing responsible, high quality care to individuals who are incarcerated.”

Corizon, based in Tennessee, is one of the largest providers of prison health care in the country, providing care for an average of 400,000 inmates across the country every year, according to their Web site. They would replace Unity, a local nonprofit organization that has run health services for the District jail for the past eight years. If the contract is rejected, the city is expected to reopen the bidding process.

About three dozen supporters of the contract, including Council member Vincent Orange (D-At-Large), rallied Tuesday on the steps of the Council’s headquarters at the John A. Wilson building.

Some wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Jobs not jail” and “Corizon/MBI works.” They appeared to be affiliated with Corizon’s local partner, MBI Health Services, and argued that a Corizon contract would bring more jobs to poor District residents, including ex-offenders.

But Tammy Seltzer, the director of the DC Jail & Prison Advocacy Project at University Legal Services, which signed the letter against Corizon, said the jobs argument makes no sense.

The contract indicates that MBI would provide services within the district’s correctional facilities, Seltzer said — not to those who have been in prison. “The Department of Corrections, as a general rule, is not going to be hiring people with a criminal record to be working in the jail,” Seltzer said.

The District requires that 35 percent of a local government contract go to recognized locally-based Community Business Enterprises (CBEs), which are typically disadvantaged and predominantly black businesses.

MBI Health Services, which the contract says provides employment opportunities to residents of the city's poorest wards(7 and 8), is Corizon's CBE partner.

Corizon has hired Edelman Public Relations to make its case. But on Tuesday, it was Rhozier “Roach” Brown, a former aide to the late D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who was speaking in defense of the company. He addressed the crowd from a podium and dismissed Corizon’s many lawsuits as irrelevant.

“You can sue a watermelon,” Brown said, prompting laughs on the Wilson building’s steps. “Filing a suit don’t mean nothing.” Brown, who served 30 years in prison for murder, claimed that he once filed a lawsuit from his cell to request blue toilet paper.

Unity, the nonprofit firm that is running prison health care on a month-to-month contract, and which had avoided meeting that CBE requirement through waivers, employs local residents to fulfill its obligations as a non-profit firm, the group and its supporters said.