Contract Killer? Phil Mendelson didn’t support the Corizon contract award when Vince Gray submitted it late last year.
Contract Killer? Phil Mendelson didn’t support the Corizon contract award when Vince Gray submitted it late last year.

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The snow stopped just last week, but it’s felt like spring for months at the Wilson Building. After months of watching the D.C. Council knock around lame duck Vince Gray before he headed into forced retirement, the relationship between the D.C. Council and new Mayor Muriel Bowser has seemed downright simpatico to LL.

Somehow, Bowser has managed to stretch the honeymoon phase with her old colleagues into two months. The mayor managed to avoid any snow response belly-flops, then the Council lined up behind her to stand up to congressional Republicans on marijuana legalization. Last week, Bowser changed the mayoral position on budget autonomy and backed the 2013 referendum, making the Council’s lawsuit against her moot in the process. Get a room, you twelve!

But there’s trouble in paradise. Take Tuesday, when Bowser declared that she wouldn’t be captive to councilmembers’ whims right after leaving her breakfast with them. Later, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson shot back that Bowser had some explaining of her own to do.

Now that’s more like it! Blame the agita on the dispute over who will be the next health provider for inmates at D.C. Jail. Bowser wants Corizon, a Tennessee-based corporation that handles corrections health care across the country, to take over the $66 million contract. Gray wanted the same, but failed in the face of opposition from the Council, whose members pointed to the company’s record of provoking lawsuits from the inmates it ostensibly serves. The fight to succeed where her predecessor failed could give Bowser her first major dispute with the Council.

The trouble for Corizon’s opponents is that the company has what’s supposed to be the golden ticket in the eyes of the good government types: a bid chosen by the District’s Office of Contracting and Procurement. After a year-and-a-half bidding process, Corizon won out over the jail’s current health provider, nonprofit Unity Health Care.

That hasn’t stopped At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who normally opposes the Council power to approve or disapprove contracts so strongly that he abstains from votes on even the most banal ones. Anticipating Bowser’s resubmission of the Corizon contract, Grosso stepped forward as the face of the opposition with a letter asking her not to send it to the Council.

Grosso’s letter makes a Corizon takeover of the jail’s health care system sound grim. Citing a flood of lawsuits over Corizon’s treatment of inmates, Grosso counts 660 legal cases against the company as a reason to suspect the District will end up liable for much more than whatever it will save by switching to Corizon. (During a Council hearing, Corizon CEO Woodrow A. Myers argued that the seemingly high number of lawsuits is caused by the company’s involvement in so many prisons.)

Corrections activist Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News, calls Corizon’s reputation in prisons “abysmal.” One reason why, according to Friedmann, is the incentive for a for-profit corrections operator to spend as little as possible on its inmates.

“The problem with that is, hey, sometimes people need to go to the hospital,” Friedmann says.

Mendelson didn’t support the Corizon contract award when Gray submitted it late last year. Now that Bowser has submitted the contract, he and the rest of the Council have 45 days to vote on it, or it’ll be considered rejected.

“It’s not hard to find lots and lots of articles about public disagreements over quality of care, whether it’s a lawsuit or a state terminating the contract,” Mendelson says.

Mendelson also worries that ditching Unity for Corizon will mean eliminating the system set up by Unity to provide care to inmates after they leave the jail. He wants to see the contracting consideration start over (so do nearly 500 people who signed a petition in favor of a new procurement process).

“Folks are trying to make this an issue about Unity,” Mendelson says. “And I believe that this is an issue first about a major change in public policy that could have significant consequences, both for the District’s pocketbook in terms of lawsuits, and public health.”

Corizon defended itself earlier this month in a letter to Grosso. Corizon accused the at-large councilmember of attempting to “impugn the integrity” of the contracting process, then pointed out the irony in the Council’s most reluctant contract reviewer interfering with their approval. As for Unity’s vaunted health care system, Corizon CEO Myers cited a 2012 city-funded study that found just a “casual continuity of care” for post-jail Unity inmates.

No councilmembers who opposed Gray’s contract approval have publicly switched to supporting Bowser’s. Neither have the councilmembers who have been sworn in since then. Ward 6 Council-member Charles Allen tells LL that he hasn’t decided how he’d vote on the contract yet, but, like his colleagues, was suspicious of the company’s record for attracting lawsuits.

It’s not clear whether Bowser has any more support than her lame duck predecessor. But that doesn’t mean the company’s supporters aren’t trying. Liberal blog ThinkProgress, which has been all over Corizon’s attempt to secure the jail contract, reports that Bowser supporter and businessman Max Brown has been urging councilmembers to support the new contract. “Smarter people than me—independent procurement folks—made the determination that the Corizon proposal was the best,” says Brown, who has been hired by Corizon to advocate on its behalf.

For its part, Corizon has bought web ads and launched a website aimed at pressuring the Council to approve the contract.

On Tuesday, Bowser said she resubmitted the Corizon contract after her staff reviewed the Gray-era award and approved it.

“The executive has done kind of its end of the contracting process,” Bowser says.

Bowser conceded that she’ll have to rebid the contract if the Council doesn’t approve it (for now, Unity is still running healthcare at the jail). Still, the mayor insisted she wouldn’t rebid the contract just so Unity would have another shot at it.

“If people have an affinity for the contract vendor, it’s not our job to hardwire the process so they get selected again,” Bowser says.

Update, 3/28: Writing in an email, Corizon spokeswoman Michelle Ouellettte, quoting company executives, describes lawsuit comparisons between Unity and Corizon as “apples to oranges” because of Unity’s protections against some kinds of lawsuits. The company, according to Corizon CEO Myers, plans to keep providing continuity of care if it takes over the jail. Read Corizon’s full response here.

Correction: This column originally included an incorrect total of Councilmembers and mayors. There are currently 12, not 13.  

Photo by Darrow Montgomery